Unitarianism is historically a Christian theological movement named for its belief that God is one entity, as opposed to the Trinity which defines God as three persons in one being; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Unitarians believe that Jesus was inspired by God in his moral teachings and is a savior but a human being rather than a deity. Unitarianism is also known for the rejection of several other Western Christian doctrines, including the doctrines of original sin, predestination, and the infallibility of the Bible. Unitarians in previous centuries accepted the doctrine of punishment in an eternal hell, but few do today. Unitarianism might be considered a part of Protestantism depending on one's stance or viewpoint; perhaps it being described a part of Nontrinitarianism, or both, is more accurate.
- Socinian Christology
- Arian Christology
- Other beliefs
- Modern Christian Unitarian organizations
- International groups
- Transylvania Hungary and Romania
- United Kingdom
- United States
- South Africa
- Biblical Unitarian Movement
- Notable Unitarians
The Unitarian movement was not called "Unitarian" initially. It began almost simultaneously in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and in Transylvania in the mid-16th century. Among the adherents were a significant number of Italians. In England, the first Unitarian Church was established in 1774 on Essex Street, London, where today's British Unitarian headquarters are still located. Since the theology was also perceived as deist, it began to attract many people from wealthy and educated backgrounds, although it was only at the late second half of the 18th century that it started to gain some wider traction within Christendom. In the United States, it spread first in New England, and the first official acceptance of the Unitarian faith on the part of a congregation in America was by King's Chapel in Boston, from where James Freeman began teaching Unitarian doctrine in 1784, and was appointed rector and revised the prayer book according to Unitarian doctrines in 1786. In J. Gordon Melton's Encyclopedia of American Religions, it is classified among "the 'liberal' family of churches".
"Unitarianism" is a proper noun and follows the same English usage as other theologies that have developed within a religious movement (Calvinism, Anabaptism, Adventism, Wesleyanism, Lutheranism, etc.). The term existed shortly before it became the name of a religious movement, and thus occasionally it is used as a common noun that would describe any understanding of Jesus Christ that denies the Trinity or which believes that God is only one person. In that case it would be a nontrinitarian belief system not necessarily associated with the Unitarian religious movement. For example, the Unitarian movement has never accepted the Godhood of Jesus, and therefore does not include those nontrinitarian belief systems that do, such as Oneness Pentecostalism, United Pentecostal Church International and the True Jesus Church and the writings of Michael Servetus, and which maintain that Jesus is God as a single person. Although these groups are unitarians in the common sense, they are not in the proper sense. To avoid confusion, this article is about Unitarianism as a religious movement (proper noun). For the generic form of unitarianism (the Christology), see Nontrinitarianism. Recently some religious groups have adopted the 19th-century term "biblical unitarianism" to distinguish their theology from Unitarianism. These likewise have no direct relation to the Unitarian movement.
The term Unitarian is sometimes applied today to those who belong to a Unitarian church but who do not hold a Unitarian theological belief. In the past, the vast majority of members of Unitarian churches were Unitarians also in theology. Over time, however, some Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists moved away from the traditional Christian roots of Unitarianism. For example, in the 1890s the American Unitarian Association began to allow non-Christian and non-theistic churches and individuals to be part of their fellowship. As a result, people who held no Unitarian belief began to be called "Unitarians" because they were members of churches that belonged to the American Unitarian Association. After several decades, the non-theistic members outnumbered the theological Unitarians. A similar, though proportionally much smaller, phenomenon has taken place in the Unitarian churches in the United Kingdom, Canada, and other countries, which remain more theistically based. Unitarian theology, therefore, is distinguishable from the belief system of modern Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist churches and fellowships. This article includes information about Unitarianism as a theology and about the development of theologically Unitarian churches. For a more specific discussion of Unitarianism as it evolved into a pluralistic liberal religious movement, see Unitarian Universalism (and its national groups the Unitarian Universalist Association in the United States, the Canadian Unitarian Council in Canada, the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches in the United Kingdom, and the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists).
Unitarianism, both as a theology and as a denominational family of churches, was defined and developed in Poland, Transylvania, England, Wales and the United States. Although there were common beliefs among Unitarians in each of these regions, they initially grew independently from each other. Only later did they influence one another and accumulate more similarities.
The Ecclesia minor or Minor Reformed Church of Poland, better known today as the Polish Brethren, was born as the result of a controversy that started on January 22, 1556, when Piotr of Goniądz (Peter Gonesius), a Polish student, spoke out against the doctrine of the Trinity during the general synod of the Reformed (Calvinist) churches of Poland held in the village of Secemin. After nine years of debate, in 1565, the anti-Trinitarians were excluded from the existing synod of the Polish Reformed Church (henceforth the Ecclesia maior) and they began to hold their own synods as the Ecclesia minor. Though frequently called "Arians" by those on the outside, the views of Fausto Sozzini (Faustus Socinus) became the standard in the church, and these doctrines were quite removed from Arianism. So important was Socinus to the formulation of their beliefs that those outside Poland usually referred to them as Socinians. The Polish Brethren were disbanded in 1658 by the Sejm (Polish Parliament). They were ordered to convert to Roman Catholicism or leave Poland. Most of them went to Transylvania or Holland, where they embraced the name "Unitarian." Between 1665 and 1668 a grandson of Socinus, Andrzej Wiszowaty Sr., published Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum quos Unitarios vocant (Library of the Polish Brethren who are called Unitarians 4 vols. 1665–69).
The Unitarian Church in Transylvania was first recognized by the Edict of Torda, issued by the Transylvanian Diet under Prince John II Sigismund Zápolya (January 1568), and was first led by Ferenc Dávid (a former Calvinist bishop, who had begun preaching the new doctrine in 1566). The term "Unitarian" first appeared as unitaria religio in a document of the Diet of Lécfalva, Transylvania, on 25 October 1600, though it was not widely used in Transylvania until 1638, when the formal recepta Unitaria Religio was published.
The word Unitarian had been circulating in private letters in England, in reference to imported copies of such publications as the Library of the Polish Brethren who are called Unitarians (1665). Henry Hedworth was the first to use the word "Unitarian" in print in English (1673), and the word first appears in a title in Stephen Nye's A brief history of the Unitarians, called also Socinians (1687). The movement gained popularity in England in the wake of the Enlightenment and began to become a formal denomination in 1774 when Theophilus Lindsey organised meetings with Joseph Priestley, founding the first avowedly Unitarian congregation in the country, at Essex Street Church in London.
The first official acceptance of the Unitarian faith on the part of a congregation in America was by King's Chapel in Boston, which settled James Freeman (1759–1835) in 1782, and revised the Prayer Book into a mild Unitarian liturgy in 1785. In 1800, Joseph Stevens Buckminster became minister of the Brattle Street Church in Boston, where his brilliant sermons, literary activities, and academic attention to the German "New Criticism" helped shape the subsequent growth of Unitarianism in New England. Unitarian Henry Ware (1764–1845) was appointed as the Hollis professor of divinity at Harvard College, in 1805. Harvard Divinity School then shifted from its conservative roots to teach Unitarian theology (see Harvard and Unitarianism). Buckminster's close associate William Ellery Channing (1780–1842) was settled over the Federal Street Church in Boston, 1803, and in a few years he became the leader of the Unitarian movement. A theological battle with the Congregational Churches resulted in the formation of the American Unitarian Association at Boston in 1825.
Unitarians believe that mainline Christianity does not adhere to strict monotheism but that they do by maintaining that Jesus was a great man and a prophet of God, perhaps even a supernatural being, but not God himself. They believe Jesus did not claim to be God and that his teachings did not suggest the existence of a triune God. Unitarians believe in the moral authority but not necessarily the divinity of Jesus. Their theology is thus opposed to the trinitarian theology of other Christian denominations.
Unitarian Christology can be divided according to whether Jesus is believed to have had a pre-human existence. Both forms maintain that God is one being and one "person" and that Jesus is the (or a) Son of God, but generally not God himself.
In the early 19th century, Unitarian Robert Wallace identified three particular classes of Unitarian doctrines in history:
Unitarianism is considered a factor in the decline of classical deism because there were people who increasingly preferred to identify themselves as Unitarians rather than deists.
Several tenets of unitarianism overlap with the beliefs of Muwahhid Muslims.
The Christology commonly called "Socinian" (after Fausto Sozzini, one of the founders of Unitarian theology) refers to the belief that Jesus Christ began his life when he was born as a human. In other words, the teaching that Jesus pre-existed his human body is rejected. There are various views ranging from the belief that Jesus was simply a human (psilanthropism) who, because of his greatness, was adopted by God as his Son (adoptionism) to the belief that Jesus literally became the son of God when he was conceived by the Holy Spirit (see Virgin birth of Jesus).
This Christology existed in some form or another prior to Sozzini. Theodotus of Byzantium, Artemon and Paul of Samosata denied the pre-existence of Christ. These ideas were continued by Marcellus of Ancyra and his pupil Photinus in the 4th century AD. In the Radical Reformation and Anabaptist movements of the 16th century this idea resurfaced with Sozzini's uncle, Lelio Sozzini. Having influenced the Polish Brethren to a formal declaration of this belief in the Racovian Catechism, Fausto Sozzini involuntarily ended up giving his name to this Christological position, which continued with English Unitarians such as John Biddle, Thomas Belsham, Theophilus Lindsey, Joseph Priestley, and James Martineau. In America, most of the early Unitarians were "Arian" in Christology (see below), but among those who held to a "Socinian" view was James Freeman.
Regarding the virgin birth of Jesus among those who denied the preexistence of Christ, some held to it and others did not. Its denial is sometimes ascribed to the Ebionites; however, Origen (Contra Celsum v.61) and Eusebius (HE iii.27) both indicate that some Ebionites did accept the virgin birth. On the other hand, Theodotus of Byzantium, Artemon, and Paul of Samosata all accepted the virgin birth. In the early days of Unitarianism, the stories of the virgin birth were accepted by most. The Chambers Biographical Dictionary (1897) incorrectly ascribes denial of the virgin birth to Ferenc Dávid, leader of the Transylvanian Unitarians. However, there were a number of Unitarians who questioned the historical accuracy of the Bible (such as Symon Budny, Jacob Palaeologus, Thomas Belsham, and Richard Wright), and this made them question the virgin birth story. Beginning in England and America in the 1830s, and manifesting itself primarily in Transcendentalist Unitarianism, which emerged from the German liberal theology associated primarily with Friedrich Schleiermacher, the psilanthropist view increased in popularity. Its proponents took an intellectual and humanistic approach to religion. They embraced evolutionary concepts, asserted the "inherent goodness of man", and abandoned the doctrine of biblical infallibility, rejecting most of the miraculous events in the Bible (including the virgin birth). Notable examples are James Martineau, Theodore Parker, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederic Henry Hedge. Famous American Unitarian William Ellery Channing was a believer in the virgin birth until later in his life, after he had begun his association with the Transcendentalists.
The Christology commonly called "Arian" holds that Jesus, before his human life, existed as the Logos, a being created by God, who dwelt with God in heaven. There are many varieties of this form of Unitarianism, ranging from the belief that the Son was a divine spirit of the same nature as God before coming to earth, to the belief that he was an angel or other lesser spirit creature of a wholly different nature from God. Not all of these views necessarily were held by Arius, the namesake of this Christology. It is still Nontrinitarian because, according to this belief system, Jesus has always been beneath God, though higher than humans. Arian Christology was not a majority view among Unitarians in Poland, Transylvania or England. It was only with the advent of American Unitarianism that it gained a foothold in the Unitarian movement.
Among early Christian theologians who believed in a pre-existent Jesus who was subordinate to God the Father were Lucian of Antioch, Eusebius of Caesarea, Arius, Eusebius of Nicomedia, Asterius the Sophist, Eunomius, and Ulfilas, as well as Felix, Bishop of Urgell. Proponents of this Christology also associate it (more controversially) with Justin Martyr and Hippolytus of Rome. Antitrinitarian Michael Servetus did not deny the pre-existence of Christ, so he may have believed in it. (In his "Treatise Concerning the Divine Trinity" Servetus taught that the Logos (Word) was the reflection of Christ, and "that reflection of Christ was 'the Word with God" that consisted of God Himself, shining brightly in heaven, "and it was God Himself" and that "the Word was the very essence of God or the manifestation of God's essence, and there was in God no other substance or hypostasis than His Word, in a bright cloud where God then seemed to subsist. And in that very spot the face and personality of Christ shone bright.") Isaac Newton had Arian beliefs as well. Famous 19th-century Arian Unitarians include Andrews Norton and Dr. William Ellery Channing (in his earlier years).
Although there is no specific authority on convictions of Unitarian belief aside from rejection of the Trinity, the following beliefs are generally accepted:
Unitarians have liberal views of God, Jesus, the world and purpose of life as revealed through reason, scholarship, science, philosophy, scripture and other prophets and religions. They believe that reason and belief are complementary and that religion and science can co-exist and guide them in their understanding of nature and God. They also do not enforce belief in creeds or dogmatic formulas. Although there is flexibility in the nuances of belief or basic truths for the individual Unitarian Christian, general principles of faith have been recognized as a way to bind the group in some commonality.
Unitarian Christians reject the doctrine of some Christian denominations that God chooses to redeem or save only those certain individuals that accept the creeds of, or affiliate with, a specific church or religion, from a common ruin or corruption of the mass of humanity.
In 1938, The Christian leader attributed "the religion of Jesus, not a religion about Jesus" to Unitarians, though the phrase was used earlier by Congregationalist Rollin Lynde Hartt in 1924 and earlier still by US President Thomas Jefferson.
Worship within the Unitarian tradition accommodates a wide range of understandings of God, while the focus of the service may be simply the celebration of life itself. Each Unitarian congregation is at liberty to devise its own form of worship, though commonly, Unitarians will light their chalice (symbol of faith), have a story for all ages; and include sermons, prayers, hymns and songs. Some will allow attendees to publicly share their recent joys or concerns.
Modern Christian Unitarian organizations
This section relates to Unitarian churches and organizations today which are still specifically Christian within or outside Unitarian Universalism, which embraces non-Christian religions.
Some Unitarian Christian groups are affiliated with the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU), founded in 1995. The ICUU tends to contain a majority membership who express specifically Unitarian Christian beliefs, rather than the religious pluralism of the UUA, but nevertheless remain liberal, open-minded and inclusive communities. The ICUU has "full member" groups in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Indonesia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Romania, South Africa, and Sri Lanka.
The ICUU includes small "Associate groups", including Congregazione Italiana Cristiano Unitariana, Turin (founded in 2004) and the Bét Dávid Unitarian Association, Oslo (founded 2005).
Transylvania (Hungary and Romania)
The largest Unitarian denomination worldwide today is also the oldest surviving Unitarian denomination (since 1565, first use of the term "Unitarian" 1600); the Unitarian Church of Transylvania (in Romania, which is in union with the Unitarian Church in Hungary). The church in Romania and Hungary still looks to the statement of faith, the Summa Universae Theologiae Christianae secundum Unitarios (1787), though today assent to this is not required. The modern Unitarian Church in Hungary (25,000 members) and the Transylvanian Unitarian Church (75,000 members) are affiliated with the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) and claim continuity with the historical Unitarian Christian tradition established by Ferenc Dávid in 1565 in Transylvania under John II Sigismund Zápolya. The Unitarian churches in Hungary and Transylvania are structured and organized along a church hierarchy that includes the election by the synod of a national bishop who serves as superintendent of the Church. Many Hungarian Unitarians embrace the principles of rationalist Unitarianism. Unitarian high schools exist only in Transylvania (Romania), including the John Sigismund Unitarian Academy in Cluj-Napoca (Kolozsvár), the Protestant Theological Institute of Cluj, and the Berde Mózes Unitárius Gimnázium in Cristuru Secuiesc (Székelykeresztúr); both teach Rationalist Unitarianism.
The Unitarian Christian Association (UCA) was founded in the United Kingdom in 1991 by Rev. Lancelot Garrard (1904–93) and others to promote specifically Christian ideas within the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches (GAUFCC), the national Unitarian body in Great Britain. Just as the UUCF and ICUU maintain formal links with the Unitarian Universalist Association in the USA, so the UCA is an affiliate body of the GAUFCC in Great Britain.
The majority of Unitarian Christian publications are sponsored by an organization and published specifically for their membership. They generally do not serve as a tool for missionary work or encouraging conversions.
The Unitarian Christian Conference USA is a network of congregations and ministers in the United States identifying with the historic Unitarian Christian tradition. The Unitarian Christian Conference USA promotes the concept of the unity of God and the message and example of Jesus of Nazareth as a rational and enriching spiritual path for personal development and a guide for creating a world of justice, peace and human dignity.
The Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship (UUCF) was founded in 1945 and as such predates the consolidation of the American Unitarian Association (AUA) and Universalist Church of America (UCA) into the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) in 1961. UUCF continues as a subgroup of UUA serving the Christian members.
The American Unitarian Conference (AUC) was formed in 2000 and stands between UUA and ICUU in attachment to the Christian element of modern Unitarianism. The American Unitarian Conference is open to non-Christian Unitarians, being particularly popular with non-Christian theists and deists. The AUC has four congregations in the United States.
Unitarian Christian Ministries International was a Unitarian ministry incorporated in South Carolina until its dissolution in 2013 when it merged with the Unitarian Christian Emerging Church.
The Sydney Unitarian Church was founded 1850 under a Reverend Mr Stanley and was a vigorous denomination during the 19th century. The modern church, no longer unitarian Christian, has properties in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne, and smaller congregations elsewhere in Australia and New Zealand.
The Unitarian movement in South Africa was founded in 1867 by the Reverend Dawid Faure, member of a well-known Cape family. He encountered advanced liberal religious thought while completing his studies at the University of Leiden in Holland for the ministry of the Dutch Reformed Church in Cape Town. On his return to South Africa he preached a probationary sermon in the Groote Kerk, Cape Town. This led to a public appeal to him to found a community based upon what was called the 'new theology'. The 'new theology' as preached by Dawid Faure was grounded in what he described as "the very essence of religion" - love of God and love of neighbor.
Biblical Unitarian Movement
In the mainstream of the Protestant Reformation there is the Biblical Unitarian Movement. Today, biblical Unitarianism (or "Biblical Unitarianism" or "biblical unitarianism") identifies the Christian belief that the Bible teaches God is a singular person, the Father, and that Jesus is a distinct being, his son. A few denominations use this term to describe themselves, clarifying the distinction between them and those churches which, from the late 19th century, evolved into modern British Unitarianism and, primarily in the United States, Unitarian Universalism. In Italy the Biblical Unitarian Movement powered by the ideas of Sozzini and others is represented today by the churches associated with the Christian Church in Italy.
Several Unitarian organizations still promote Christianity as their central theme. Among them, Unitarian Ministries International, the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship (UUCF, an affiliate of the UUA), the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches (GAUFCC) of the United Kingdom, and the Unitarian Christian Association (UCA, an affiliate of the GAUFCC).
Notable Unitarians include classical composers Edvard Grieg and Béla Bartók, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker and Thomas Lamb Eliot in theology and ministry, Oliver Heaviside, Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley, John Archibald Wheeler, Linus Pauling, Sir Isaac Newton and inventor Sir Francis Ronalds in science, George Boole in mathematics, Susan B. Anthony in civil government, Florence Nightingale in humanitarianism and social justice, John Bowring, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in literature, Elizabeth Gaskell, Frank Lloyd Wright in the arts, Josiah Wedgwood in industry, Thomas Starr King in ministry and politics, and Charles William Eliot in education. Although raised a Quaker, Ezra Cornell, founder of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, attended the Unitarian church and was one of the founders of Ithaca's First Unitarian Church. Eramus Darwin Shattuck, a signatory to the Oregon State Constitution, founded the first Unitarian Church in Oregon in 1865.
Eleven Nobel prizes have been awarded to Unitarians: Robert Millikan and John Bardeen (twice) in Physics; Emily Green Balch, Albert Schweitzer, Linus Pauling, and Geoff Levermore for Peace; George Wald and David H. Hubel in Medicine; Linus Pauling in Chemistry; and Herbert A. Simon in Economics.
Four presidents of the United States were Unitarians: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, and William Howard Taft. Adlai Stevenson II, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956, was a Unitarian, and he was the last Unitarian (so far) to be nominated by a major party for president. Although a self-styled materialist, Thomas Jefferson was pro-Unitarian to the extent of advocating that it become the predominant religion in the United States.
British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain was raised by his Unitarian statesman father, Joseph Chamberlain. Certainly, in the United Kingdom, Unitarianism – the religion of only a small minority of the country's population – had an enormous impact on Victorian politics, not only in the larger cities – Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, and Liverpool – but in smaller communities like Leicester where there were so many Unitarian mayors that the Unitarian Chapel was known as the "Mayors' Nest".
In Birmingham, a most impressive Unitarian Church was opened in 1862. The Church of the Messiah, as it was called, was more than the centre of a small sect: it was a cultural and intellectual centre of a whole society, a place where ideas about society were openly and critically discussed. Henry W. Crosskey’s Birmingham Unitarian congregation included: Joseph Chamberlain, as well as Arthur, his younger brother, who was married to Louisa Kenrick; William Kenrick, his brother-in-law, who was married to Mary Chamberlain; and Sir Thomas Martineau, who was the nephew of Harriet Martineau, another outspoken public figure and author of the time. Sir Thomas Martineau (died 1893), was related to the Chamberlain family by marriage; Sir Thomas had married Emily Kenrick, the sister of Florence Chamberlain, née Kenrick.
In Lambeth, South London, another two members of the Martineau family, Caroline and Constance, worked at Morley College, the former acting as (unpaid) Principal for over eleven years. Several other prominent Unitarians were involved in the development of this liberal arts college, which was founded by actors at the Old Vic theatre.
These elite British Unitarian families: the Nettlefolds, the Martineaus, the Luptons, the Kitsons and the Kenricks, found a most significant place in the social and political history of Victorian through to mid-20th-century Britain.
Other Unitarians include Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web Lancelot Ware, founder of Mensa, Sir Adrian Boult, the conductor, Ray Kurzweil, notable inventor and futurist, and C. Killick Millard, founder of the Dignity in Dying society to support voluntary euthanasia. Ram Mohan Roy an Indian reformer of the 18th century, was a Unitarian who published a book called Precepts of Jesus.