Roots of Our Faith: Unitarianism

Roots of Our Faith: Unitarianism


Unitarian Universalism is a blend of many faiths. Both Unitarianism and Universalism have several antecedents themselves, and our members add others. This year we are learning about a dozen primary influences, from Buddhism to Judaism to Christianity to Humanism to earth-based faiths, to Atheism. This Sunday we look at the foundational Unitarian religion and its characteristics. The over-arching theme however, is the unity of everything, hence the name Unitarian. Unitarianism has attracted a great number of smart people who make the world a better place. We will name some of them, too, just for fun.


We don’t hear about just plain Unitarianism much these days, only about Unitarian Universalism. We run into the odd Unitarian in the history books, or when used by a non-UU, and which – when we hear it – seems somehow jarring and wrong, or quaint and not-quite-with-it. In our denomination’s publicity, some famous Unitarians are described as Unitarian Universalists, which they most certainly were not. When in the company of UUs, if I describe myself as a Unitarian, I am corrected – “Unitarian Universalist!” I confess, I occasionally do it just to start a conversation.

Since the merger in 1961 of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, it seems we have a new religion – Unitarian Universalism. The merger was done to save Universalism, and to strengthen Unitarianism. However, it is difficult to distinguish UUism from Unitarianism. We will attempt it here in two weeks.

A Minimum of History

Beginning near the beginning, the ferment of the revolutionary ideas let loose by the Reformation and its antecedents created what would become Unitarianism. You will recall that the New Learning of the Renaissance, combined with the corruption of the Catholic Church gave birth to the Protestant Reformation. Suddenly it was possible for ordinary people, not just theologians and scholars, to “think for themselves.”

One of the great themes of the Reformation was “the priesthood of all believers.” That is, anyone, even a woman, had the ability to read and interpret Scripture for themselves. The subversion contained in that idea was that now one did not have to have a priest as intermediary. You, yourself, could have a direct relationship with the Almighty.

Once freed, opinion quickly splintered. In addition to the Reformation that created Lutherans and Presbyterians, Puritans and Anglicans, you got a Radical Reformation creating Anabaptists, Hutterites, Mennonites, and Socinians. These people came to be viewed as extreme and dangerous and were condemned as heretics by conservative churchmen and governments, Protestant and Catholic alike.


The early Unitarians had an intuition, shared by many before and after, that in the most encompassing sense, “it’s all one.” God is undivided, certainly, and perhaps everything is part of God. That’s pantheism.

“Hear O Israel, the Lord they God is One.” Allah too, is One, and Mohamed is his prophet, not a god. The origins of the Trinity are a mix of ancient polytheism, Greek philosophy, and Roman religion. It did not come from Judaism or the Rabii Jesus of Nazareth.

The name Unitarian conveys its differentiation from mainline Christianity: Unitarians believed that God is one, not one in three and also not three in one. Unitarian then, as opposed to Trinitarianism.

The Essence of Modern Unitarianism

Many Unitarians agree with the idea implied by the name. We mostly believe it is all One, and that the Unitarian intuition about unity is surely correct, and is being constantly affirmed by our science. It all coheres. The name that Stephen Hawking and other astrophysicists have given to the Universe prior to the Big Bang is the “singularity.”

We call ourselves Unitarian partly because we believe the intuition of unity is theologically correct as well, and leads to a greater, more expansive and inclusive consciousness, which in turn develops a kindlier attitude toward the rest of creation, for the creatures and their environments, a kindly attitude even toward the sorriest excuses for human beings you can think of, many of whom seem attracted to elective office.

Many of us have chosen it because it provides a place to be religious but not to be told what to think.

Unitarians, in their current incarnation as Unitarian Universalists, are characterized by their general liberality, their free-thinking, rather than by any doctrine of the unity of the god-head. If asked about UUism, we don’t talk about denying the Trinity, but about inclusion and equality and justice and spiritual quest minus the supernatural.

There are lots of Trinitarians who are progressive and liberal, and when you think about it, there’s nothing necessarily liberal about denying the Trinity, except perhaps in the unwillingness to believe nonsense. (It is nonsense, isn’t it, to believe that something can be one and three at the same time?) It just happened that these Unitarians, growing liberal through independent thought, clustered together and were liberal and progressive and accomplished liberal and progressive changes.

Unitarian Exemplars

Unitarianism’s original theology is – I believe – still true, but it takes a decidedly back seat to the actions of its adherents. This is its great tradition, its heritage, and its example for us.

When I was experiencing religious persecution in school, I memorized these names, and gave thanks for them:


  • Thomas Jefferson (especially!)
  • John Adams
  • John Quincy Adams
  • Millard Fillmore
  • Howard Taft

Founding Fathers and Mothers

  • Abigail Adams (1744 – 1818): First Lady of the United States
  • Benjamin Franklin (1737 – 1790): scientist, writer, statesman, printer
  • Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809): the English radical, editor and publisher of Common Sense
  • Paul Revere (1735 – 1818): silversmith and patriot
  • Benjamin Rush (1745 – 1813): signer of the Declaration of Independence, physician, considered to be the “Father of American Psychiatry”
  • John Marshall (1755 – 1835): Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court

Those Angels of Mercy at the Battlefield Hospital

And bringers of science and common sense to medicine in general:

  • Florence Nightingale (1820 – 1910): “the lady with the lamp” the English nurse and hospital reformer
  • Clara Barton (1821 – 1912): nurse during US Civil War and founder of the American Red Cross. (Actually, Ms. Barton was a Universalist, but she associated with Unitarians.)

Inventors and Scientists

  • Samuel Morse (1791 – 1872): inventor of the telegraph and Morse Code
  • Alexander Graham Bell (1847 – 1922): inventor of the telephone and founder of Bell Telephone Company
  • Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882): scientist and evolutionist, author of Origin of the Species
  • Charles Steinmetz (1865 – 1923): electrical engineer
  • Luther Burbank (1849 – 1926): American Botanist of the early 20th century
  • Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1959): architect and egomaniac
  • Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996): planetary scientist, cosmologist
  • Linus Pauling (1901 – 1994): chemist who won the Nobel prizes for Chemistry in 1954 and for Peace in 1962
  • Stephen Hawking (1942 – 2018): theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author

Writers and Poets

  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882): poet, author of Evangeline
  • Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870): English novelist
  • Herman Melville (1819 – 1891): writer, author of Moby Dick
  • Julia Ward Howe (1819 – 1910): composer of Battle Hymn of the Republic
  • Louisa May Alcott (1832 – 1888): author of Little Women and other books
  • Beatriz Potter (1866 – 1943): author of Peter Rabbit and other children’s stories

Other Public Persons

  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841 – 1935): lawyer and member of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932
  • John Hayes Holmes (1879 – 1964): co-founder of the ACLU
  • Adlai Stevenson (1900 – 1965): two-term Governor of Illinois, twice the Democratic candidate for President

That was my list in grade school, junior high, and high school. Later, I would learn about many other Unitarians.

  • Susan B. Anthony (1820 – 1906): organizer of the women’s suffrage movement
  • Ted Sorenson (1928 – 2010): speechwriter and aide to John F. Kennedy

More Writers and Poets

  • Ray Bradbury (1920 – 2012): science fiction writer
  • Robert Burns (1759 – 1796): Scottish poet and song writer
  • Carl Sandburg (1878 – 1967): poet
  • Bret Harte (1836 – 1902): writer, author of The Luck of Roaring Camp
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 – 1864): 19th century American novelist, author of The Scarlet Letter
  • e.e. cummings (1894 – 1962): 20th century American Poet, noted for his unorthodox style and technique
  • Kurt Vonnegut (1922 – 2007): writer, author of Slaughterhouse-Five
  • Rod Serling (1924 – 1975): creator of and writer for The Twilight Zone

Influential Unitarian Ministers and Their Friends

  • William Ellery Channing (1780 – 1842): abolitionist, founder of the American Unitarian Association
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882): Unitarian minister, philosophy, essayist
  • Theodore Parker (1810 – 1860): a renegade Unitarian minister of the mid-19th century, and a leading figure of the Abolitionist movement in the Boston area.
  • Margaret Fuller (1810 – 1850): a feminist before her time. Leading figure in the Transcendentalist movement and an editor of The Dial, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862): essayist and naturalist, author of Walden Pond

Political Agitators, Activists, and Revolutionaries

  • William Lloyd Garrison (1805 – 1879): abolitionist, editor of The Liberator
  • Horace Greeley (1811 – 1872): journalist, politician, editor and owner of the New York Tribune, champion of labor unions and cooperatives
  • Wolfe Tone (1763 – 1798): a key figure in the United Irishmen and the rising of 1798
  • Josiah Wedgewood (1730 – 1795): potter and anti-slavery activist
  • Dorothea Dix (1802 – 1887): crusader for the reform of institutions for the mentally ill
  • Pete Seeger (1919 – 2014): songwriter, singer, and social activist

Unitarians all, a hugely impressive list. Hugely disproportionate achievement compared to the size of the Unitarian Church. And if you expand the criteria a tiny bit and include the Deists and other religious liberals, you get all the Unitarians above, plus a staggering list of remarkable people with Unitarian ideas and liberal religious sympathies, but who didn’t join the church.

There are so many I am not going to name them all. You may already be bored. If you want to see them all, this sermon will be made available in its full length.

Out of these dozens of names, I will therefore name only eight most likely to surprise:

  • Peter the Great
  • J.S. Bach
  • Frederick the Great
  • Catherine the Great
  • George Washington
  • Napoleon
  • Mohandas K. Gandhi
  • Vaclav Havel
  • Copernicus
  • Montaigne
  • Bacon
  • Galileo
  • Hobbes
  • Descartes
  • Pascal
  • Boyle
  • Spinoza
  • Locke
  • Newton
  • Leibniz
  • Walpole
  • Berkeley
  • Pope
  • Montesquieu
  • Voltaire
  • Pitt the elder
  • Hume
  • Rousseau
  • Diderot
  • Adam Smith
  • Kant
  • John Hancock
  • Ethan Allen
  • Gibbon
  • Goethe
  • Madison
  • Mozart
  • Hamilton
  • Lafayette
  • Robespierre
  • Monroe
  • Robert Emmet
  • Byron
  • Hugo
  • Lincoln
  • Tennyson
  • Browning
  • Kierkegaard
  • Whitman
  • Dumas the Younger
  • Twain/Clemens
  • Edison
  • Wilde
  • Crane
  • Einstein
  • Gibran
  • Joseph Campbell
  • Heinlien
  • Alan Watts

Unitarianism is a thinking person’s religion. The people we’ve just listed are smart and well-meaning, but are characterized less by their theology than by their accomplishments.

Some were geniuses, most were fairly ordinary people who knew what to do when the opportunity arose. What distinguishes them all was their impulse to try to make a difference for the better.

May we therefore, each in our own way, be able to say we did the same. If we wish to, or need to, we can gain strength and encouragement from their lives and from each other here, in this place that honors freedom and generosity, to make our own lives a force for good, to become, from time to time, the grace of God in other people’s lives.


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