Unitarian Universalist History, part 1:
Our Unitarian Roots
See also Canadian UU Historical Society
Unitarian Universalism is a 20th century marriage of two, centuries-old, progressive denominations of protestant Christianity: Unitarianism and Universalism. Continuously evolving, and incorporating 20th century liberal and humanist ideas, UUism is now best characterized as a post-Christian spiritual community. Below is a short essay about the origins of one of our roots: Unitarianism.
This essay was produced by Lakeshore Unitarian Universalist Congregation using two major reference works: Michael Harris, Unitarian Universalist Origins: Our Historic Faith (http://www.uua.org/info/origins.html), and David B. Parke, The Epic of Unitarianism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963). Thank you to LUUC for permission to share this history.
Questioning dogma: debates about the Trinity
Unitarianism traces its beginnings back to the earliest centuries of the spread of Christianity, as differing interpretations of Christianity evolved within the various societies constituting the Roman Empire. Interpreting the relationship between God and Jesus was especially contentious. One of the major disputes was between those who considered God to be one and indivisible (as in ancient Hebraic teachings), and those who spoke of the Trinitarian God: Father, Son and Spirit. Although this controversy was formally settled by the Council of Nicea in 325CE, which proclaimed the orthodoxy of the Trinity, some groups of Christians continued through the centuries to assert that there was no biblical foundation for this interpretation. Persons and parishes espousing this position were often referred to as “Arians”, as Arius was the name of the theologian who defended this position during the Council of Nicea. It is this tradition of challenging dogma, symbolized by the Arians, which Unitarians continue to honour.
During the Reformation sparked by Martin Luther (95 Theses, 1517 CE), with his attempt to reform the Catholic Church, the debate concerning the divinity of Jesus was also rekindled. Many voices were heard around Europe urging Luther and John Calvin, considered the leaders of the Reformation, to proclaim that the Trinity was a false doctrine. A book called On the Errors of the Trinity by a Spaniard, Michael Servetus, was addressed to Calvin and circulated throughout Europe. For this, Calvin had Michael Servetus burned at the stake in 1553.
In the years that followed the execution of Servetus, only parts of Eastern Europe remained open to the exercise of religious tolerance. Anti-trinitarian adherents in two particular areas of Eastern Europe formed strong religious movements: the Unitarian church in Transylvania and the Minor Reformed Church in Poland. (Parke, p.18)
The Minor Reformed Church split off from the Reformed (Calvinist) Church of Poland in 1563. The members called themselves the Polish Brethren, and they attempted to govern themselves according to precepts of the Sermon on the Mount. A community they established in Rakow, Poland, flourished and welcomed an Italian anti-trinitarian who has become known to us as Socinius. For a time, his writings spread across Continental Europe and reached England. They were, in fact, found in the library of the English philosopher of tolerance, John Locke. The Catholic counter-reformation inaugurated a Europe-wide period of persecution and The Polish Brethren were banished from Poland under threat of death, effectively extinguishing the movement. Protestant denominations, including Unitarian Universalists, now once again exist in Poland, but are a relatively small minority.
Religious Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience
In the distant mountains of Transylvania, Unitarian principles actually acquired a royal patron: John Sigismund (1540-1571), king of Transylvania, was deeply interested in religion, and sought to pacify the conflicts among all the factions within his realm. He fostered a policy of open discussion as well as a broad toleration of viewpoints, and issued an Act of Religious Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience. He became a Unitarian – the first and only Unitarian king in history. Sigismund’s court preacher, Frances David, had successively converted from Catholicism to Lutheranism to Calvinism and finally to Unitarianism because he claimed that he could find no biblical basis for the doctrine of the Trinity. Arguing that people should be allowed to choose among these faiths, he wrote “We need not think alike to love alike.” Unitarian churches in present-day Romania (medieval Transylvania) continue to preach this message.
Many writers, preachers, and congregations attempted to promote breaks with dogma within the Reformation. They are all linked in spirit to the debates which led eventually to the emergence of specifically Unitarian congregations in England and North America in the 18th and early 19th century. These movements were led once again by questioners of dogma, and advocates of religious tolerance.
Such qualities have become the hallmarks of what modern Unitarian Universalists promote to this day: an avoidance of dogma, an inquiring attitude, and a tolerance for diversity of beliefs. Within their diversity, Unitarian Universalists share the conviction that human action must be centered on a core of ethical principles broadly consistent with authentic Christianity, while striving for universal values.
Unitarian Universalist History, part 2:
Our Universalist Roots
Unitarian Universalism is a 20th century marriage of two, centuries-old, progressive denominations of Protestant Christianity: Unitarianism and Universalism. Continuously evolving, and incorporating 20th-century liberal and humanist ideas, UUism is now best characterized as a post-Christian spiritual community. Below is a short essay about the history and theological evolution of one of our roots: Universalism.
This essay is adapted from a booklet, A Search for Truth, authored by Louise Foulds of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Olinda, Ontario. Thank you to Ms. Foulds and the Olinda church for permission to share this history.
The Evolution of Universalist Thinking
UUEstrie was founded as the First Universalist Church of North Hatley in 1886. It was one of a number of Canadian Universalist churches that sprang up close to the American border, an outgrowth from the New England Universalist Convention, a denominational body based in Boston that dates from 1793. Today, UUEstrie is still a member of the Vermont-Québec Universalist Convention, which meets once a year in a UU Church somewhere in the district.
The Universalist Idea
When Universalism first became an organized religion, it was one part of the American Protestant Christian tradition. What separated Universalism from other sects of Christians at the time was its distinguishing belief that all souls would eventually be reconciled with God, or ‘saved’, or, in other words, that salvation was universally available to all humanity.
This Universalist Idea is very old. It was a doctrine widely held in the early Christian Church and taught in four of its six theological schools. But in the year 544 CE it was declared heretical, when the emperor Justinian put the curse of heresy upon all, “past, present and forever,” who taught the doctrine of “universal salvation.” As far as we know, we continue to be officially an heretical church.
One has to imagine the huge authority that the Emperor had in that time, so powerful that the Universalist Idea disappeared from public discourse for a thousand years! But you can’t keep a good idea down. Repressed for a millenium, the universalist idea eventually resurfaced during the religious upheaval of the 16th century known as the Protestant Reformation, and from that time down to the present day, Universalism in some form has continued to exist, evolve, and, some might say, shine.
In 16th, 17th, and 18th-century Europe, persons of universalist persuasion were known as Pietists. For Pietists, the essence of religion was the spirit of Christian living, not the letter of Christian doctrine. They had little interest in theology, nor any desire to cow-tow to an institutional church; they recognized no authority but the Bible. Their religion was grounded in a mystical, intuitive faith that God was the all-loving father of the whole human race, incapable of inflicting eternal punishment on any of his children. The fact that all human beings were of one family meant also that all were of equal worth. This beautiful thought is the basis for our first principle of modern Unitarian Universalism, of which we are so proud, ‘respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person’. This was understood and practiced by our Universalist forebears over 200 years ago. Even 2000 years ago! It has a good pedigree.
During the 18th century, Universalist thought was fueled by the socio-cultural phenomenon called the Enlightenment, a period that introduced into European culture radical ideas such as democracy, progress, freedom, reason and tolerance, and that produced the French Revolution and the American revolution. Universalist thought was also fueled by an increasing discontent with Calvinism, the dominant form of Protestant Christianity of the time.
One of the cornerstones of Calvin’s theology was the doctrine that God had, for all time, predestined a chosen few (the Elect) to be saved, and condemned all others, from the moment of their birth, to spend eternity in the torments of hell! To Universalists, this was an outrageous blasphemy masquerading as Christianity. It could only mean that God was a horrible sadist who was knowingly creating millions of human beings whose ultimate and inescapable destiny was endless misery. How rotten an idea is that!? It is difficult for us today to picture the morbid fear of eternal damnation that gripped the minds of earnest 16th, 17th, and 18th-century Christians.
But rational minds were rejecting this harsh and elitist doctrine of the Elect. Quoting the Bible (e.g., Rom. 5:18; 1 Cor. 15:22; 1 Tim. 2:3-6; 1 John 2:1,2), they argued that Christ’s sacrifice had saved all humankind. A favourite text was the passage: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.”
Georges de Benneville (1703-1793) was born in England to Huguenot parents. He became a medical doctor and a preacher of universalist ideas in Europe, and eventually emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1741, to join a community of German Pietists who had settled there, attracted by the religious liberalism of the Quaker William Penn, Pennsylvania’s founder. Here is a quote to evoke the kind of person Penn was: “I expect to pass through life but only once. If, therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do, to any fellow being , let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.”
So the Pietists, instead of being shunned as heretics, were welcomed in Pennsylvania. And it was there, for nearly 50 years, that de Benneville preached his conviction that God in “his holy love for all creatures will save all the human species.” De Benneville had no interest in founding a religious institution; he was more or less a self-employed itinerant preacher, a type of vocation one tended to see more of in those days. But, by his preaching and example, he spread the message: religion is a thing of the spirit, transcending creeds; all persons are of equal worth in the sight of God; and all will finally be redeemed by the love of God.
John Murray (1741-1815) was another charismatic English immigrant to America, who, from 1770, when he first landed in New Jersey, preached the universalist message to receptive ears throughout the north-eastern United States. There is quite a story about John Murray. Son of a Protestant minister, he followed in his father’s footsteps and demonstrated a talent for preaching, even while still a teen ager. He was apprenticed to a Methodist minister, who one day sent him out to meet a woman who was apparently preaching the Universalist Idea on the street corner, and explain to her the error of her ways. He went and talked with the woman, and…it was she who convinced him of the error of his ways! Murray became an instant, firm convert to Universalism.
But when he went and told this to his boss, the Methodist minister, he was immediately shunned and turned away. He told his father, and his father immediately shunned him too! This put him in great despair, and then, tragedy upon tragedy, his wife and young son died. He had had enough. He gave up his calling, and boarded a ship for America, and a completely new start.
When his ship got to the US, it was caught by the tides and ran aground off the shore of New Jersey. So Murray and several others walked to shore to get supplies while waiting for the next tide. It turned out that he met a farmer, Thomas Potter, who happened, serendipitously, to be a Universalist. Not only was he a Universalist, but Potter had built a chapel on his land to host religious services whenever he could obtain an appropriate minister. Long story short, Murray preached to a full house that Sunday, and never looked back. His talent shone and he was invited to preach all over the northeast. He was eventually called to be the first minister of the first, organized, specifically-Universalist Church in New England, in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Murray is famous for his message: “Go out into the highways and by-ways. Give the people something of your new vision…. Give them, not Hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.”
It was largely due to the powerful preaching of John Murray that Universalist churches began to spring up all over the northeast, until a point was reached in 1793 when they joined together to form their first denominational body, the New England Universalist Convention. Hence we can say that organized Universalism dates from 1793.
As Universalism advanced into the 19th century, a third powerful Universalist leader, Hosea Ballou (1771-1852), appeared on the scene. His special and lasting contribution to Universalism, which had by then become an organized religious denomination, was to ally it with progressive thought. Ballou had almost no formal education, but had read widely and had absorbed intensely the spirit of the 18th century Enlightenment, with its ideals of freedom and tolerance, and its confidence in human reason and the possibility of progress. In his preaching, he exalted reason as “the highest faculty we have received from God”, and proclaimed as a tenet of the faith “an extensive latitude to think freely.” Ballou is thus the man behind another of modern Universalism’s tenets: freedom of thought, which was accepted and instutionalized by the Universalist Convention in 1803, more than 200 years ago.
In his Treatise on the Atonement, published in 1805 (!), Ballou broke new ground in theological argument by appealing not only to Scripture, but also to reason and logic. This was a radical departure from orthodox Christianity. His reasoning led him to deny four of the main doctrines of conventional Christianity: the Trinity, original sin, eternal punishment, and the supernatural redemption of man. These are doctrines still found today in mainstream Christianity, but Ballou denied them, on the grounds that they were both unscriptural and irrational.
He was right, of course. None of these doctrines came from the Bible; they were all invented by the ruling bishops, to strengthen their power. If they could convince you that Hell awaited you with certainty, but they alone had the magic power to allow you to avoid that fate, their power was immense. We know as well that the doctrine of the Trinity was invented by a council of bishops at Nicea in 325CE, as a way of incorporating and subsuming the incessantly growing Christian segment of the public into the theocratic power structure of the Roman Empire. And it worked; it was a wily political strategy. But it was not corroborated in the Bible, as Ballou and a number of others had shown.
Here is Balou in his own words about these aspects of conventional Christian doctrine: “Why the above ideas should ever have been imbibed by men of understanding and study,” he said, “I can but scarcely satisfy myself: their absurdities are so glaring that it seems next to impossible that men of sobriety and sound judgment should ever imbibe them.” Ballou reasoned that punishment could be justified only as a reforming measure, and it therefore made no sense to punish forever—no human parent would be so irrational. He saw Jesus’ mission on earth not as saving people from their inherently sinful nature, (all human beings have inherent worth), nor as saving them from God’s wrath (God was a loving God, not a raging monster). Jesus’ mission on earth was to win people to an understanding of God’s love, and to a desire to express the same love in their own lives. That still today sounds like a beautiful philosophy, faithful to the teaching of Jesus, two centuries later.
Finally, take note that when he denied the doctrine of the Trinity in his Treatise, Ballou was effectively declaring himself a unitarian (believing that God is one). This is another belief that quickly became the norm among Universalists. And we may note that it became a clearly established Universalist belief from the publication of the Treatise in 1805, eight years before William E. Channing preached the foundational sermon on Unitarian Christianity that eventually led to the establishment of the Unitarian Church, a sister liberal religion that grew in New England alongside the Universalists. (see Our Unitarian Roots)
By 1793, Universalist churches across the northeastern United States had formally constituted their first-ever denominational body, known as the New England Convention. Ten years later, in 1803, to “prevent confusion and misunderstanding,” this New England Convention adopted its first statement of faith, known as the Winchester Profession. The Profession dropped all Trinitarian implications as well as all reference to Jesus as a sacrificial saviour. Even more interestingly, there was appended to the Profession a ‘liberty clause’, which allowed each individual, and each congregation, complete latitude in interpretation. This statement stood for nearly a century, until, in 1899, what was then the Universalist General Convention added a new statement of faith, the Essential Principles of the Universalist Church. At the same time, however, they maintained the Profession, and its ‘liberty clause’: Universalists would still be free to subscribe to either or both, and to interpret them in their own way; their freedom of thought was sacrosanct.
Like other Christian denominations in the U.S. in the 19th century, Universalists founded schools and colleges. But unlike the others, they strove to be nonsectarian. Tufts University in Boston MA was founded by Universalists in 1852. It was the first in the U.S. to require no creedal test for trustees, faculty or students. Universalists were also ahead of their time in recognizing the capabilities of women. In 1863 Olympia Brown, a graduate of Canton Theological School, became the first woman in the U.S. to be ordained to the Ministry with full denominational authority. Incidentally, she served a Universalist church just south of us in Vermont during her internship as a Minister-in-training.
By grafting Enlightenment values onto the Pietist faith in a God of infinite love and mercy, Hosea Ballou had set Universalism on its course into the future. His legacy of rationality enabled Universalist leaders and preachers of the late-19th and early 20th centuries to take in stride the new knowledge of Evolution coming out of Darwinism. Universalist preachers stood out in their willingness to accept scientific evidence and new scholarship as part of their religion, and interpret this to the laity. As they did so, the focus of their Universalist Christianity then shifted to the pure morality exemplified by Jesus: Love thy neighbour, and Everyone is your neighbour.
The 20th Century
The early 20th century saw Universalism’s theological message of future salvation diminish in importance, which is a polite way of saying that there were not many people walking around any more with a morbid fear of Hell dominating their every-day thoughts. Worries about an afterlife had given way to the practical application of Christian principles for the betterment of life here on Earth. By 1933, this was evident in an important document called the Humanist Manifesto, which was independently published, signed by 34 social leaders including politicians, professors, and one Universalist and eight Unitarian clergy.
This Humanist Manifesto asserted that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science made unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values. It put forth a religious atheism that regarded the universe as self-existing, not created by the intention of some supernatural being, and that regarded human beings as a part of the natural world that had emerged as the result of a continuous evolutionary process.
The conclusion to the Manifesto insisted that:
“Though we consider the religious forms and ideas of our fathers no longer adequate, the quest for the good life is still the central task for mankind. Man is at last becoming aware that he alone is responsible for the realization of the world of his dreams, that he has within himself the power for its achievement.”
The Manifesto called for a religious humanism that considered the development and fulfillment of the human personality, in the here and now, to be the end and goal of human living. The Manifesto discouraged all “sentimental and unreal hopes and wishful thinking”, and stated unambiguously that religion’s job was to “work increasingly for joy in living.”
The Humanist Manifesto made sense to many Universalists, and provoked them to adopt a new Avowal of Faith, in 1935, that contained no reference at all to the historic belief in universal salvation. The Avowal of Faith envisioned a world in which people of good will could overcome evil and establish the Kingdom of God here on Earth. It also shifted the authority for belief from a divinely revealed Bible, to “truth known or to be known”, thus recognizing the wisdom available from writers and prophets of all ages and traditions. The Avowal also maintained the traditional Pietist belief in the supreme worth of every personality (which had appeared as well in the Humanist Manifesto).
With the advent of the Avowal, the traditional message of Universalism—human brotherhood, the worth of the individual, the human potential for good, and the emphasis on love as the key to realizing that potential—could now be understood as a universal human aspiration, noble in itself, and needing no divine sanction to give it religious validity.
It is notable that the Avowal of Faith of 1935 included, along with the new statement, the 1803 Profession and the 1899 Principles. Appended was the comment: “these historic declarations of faith, with liberty of interpretation, are dear and acceptable to many Universalists. They are commended not as tests but as testimonies in the free quest for truth that accords with the genius of the Universalist Church.” In other words, periodic restatements of Universalist belief were intended not to dismiss the old values, nor to make anyone feel excluded or marginalized; their intention was simply to acknowledge new thinking, and to encourage free thought.
A new hymnbook in 1937, while it had most of its content drawn from “the general tradition of Christian worship” and readings that were primarily biblical in origin, also included, for the first time, selections from non-biblical sources, ancient and modern, “not hitherto widely used for such purposes.”
In 1933, when Universalist minister Clinton Lee Scott first signed the Humanist Manifesto, controversy erupted over whether an atheist humanist could also be a Universalist. A majority at the time thought not, but, far from being dis-fellowshipped, Scott was re-elected a trustee of the General Convention by a sizeable majority, and became in later years a revered elder statesman of the denomination.
This issue of a conflict between Universalism and humanism flared up again in 1949 with the founding of the Charles Street Universalist Meeting House in Boston, under the leadership of the Reverend Kenneth L. Patton, a humanist. It was intended as an experiment in a truly universal Universalism—a religion of “one humanity and one world.” Conservative Universalists at the time argued that its humanist teaching automatically excluded it from the Universalist Church, and were able to delay for three years the granting of fellowship to the Meeting House.
Toward Post-Christian Thought
It was clear by the twentieth century that the entire body of Protestantism had muted its earlier emphasis on hell-fire, effectively undermining the unique appeal of the doctrine that had given Universalism its name. This was evident in the 1935 Avowal of Faith, which made no reference at all to the doctrine of universal salvation: eternal punishment had ceased to be the preoccupying issue it had been a century earlier.
There had always been a variety of opinion regarding Universalism’s relationship to Christianity. The earliest Universalists had felt not only that their faith was a part of Christianity, but also that it was the original and most authentic form of it. Another, conservative wing viewed it as simply one branch of the Christian Church, with a unique educating mission to perform, which, by the 20th century, seemed to have been largely accomplished. And then there was a more radical wing, that saw in Universalism the potential for something larger and more inclusive than Christianity.
In the mid 20th century, this more radical and inclusive vision of Universalism was gaining support. In 1942 the Universalist Church of America’s charter was written to include the purpose of “promoting harmony among adherents of all religious faiths, whether Christian or otherwise.” In 1943 the General Superintendent of the UCA was Robert Cummins, a man who appears in the archives of UUEstrie, because of supporting correpondence from him during the successful struggle by a handful of loyal Universalists in the 1950s to prevent the conversion of this church into a United Church, part of the United Church of Canada.
In a speech in 1943, Cummins said, “Universalism cannot be limited either to Protestantism or to Christianity, not without denying its very name. Ours is a world fellowship, not just a Christian sect. For so long as Universalism is universalism and not partialism, the fellowship bearing its name must succeed in making it unmistakably clear that all are welcome—theist and humanist, unitarian and Trinitarian, colored and color-less. A circumscribed Universalism is unthinkable.” He would later add, “Christian Universalism is a partialism, and a contradiction in terms …. Our Universalism has been too Bible-centred, [too] parochial…, one generation’s interpretation is rarely the interpretation of the next.”
Free-thinking Universalists of the 20th century had also undertaken the respectful study of other world religions. This very quickly, and effectively, undermined Christianity’s traditional claim to be the unique path to Salvation (which had led to all kinds of atrocities over the years, such as slaughtering ‘savages’ or ‘witches’ in order to ‘save’ them). We see today posters depicting a number of different religions, all of them with statements of the Golden Rule in their own terms; they show that there are many different but similar paths to the Holy.
Thus the sentiment grew among Universalist leaders that Christianity was but one expression of a universal human religious impulse. At the 1949 General Assembly of the UCA, Brainard Gibbons delivered a sermon in which he called for “a clean break with the exclusive claims and pretensions of orthodox Christianity.” Two years later he was elected President of the UCA.
Throughout this evolution in Universalist theology, one element of the faith remained constant, and found expression in each of the statements of 179l, 1803, 1899, and 1935—the conviction that the only real religion is one that puts its principles into practice. Murray had said that “every man’s faith, be it what it may, is only between him and his Maker. It is his actions and their influence in society that concern mankind.”
Hosea Ballou had emphasized brotherly love as the one overriding imperative flowing from true religion. If God was the loving father of all humankind, it followed that we were all one family. The resulting strong ethical and humanitarian emphasis in Universalism propelled many of its followers into the ranks of reform movements. In the 19th century they were active in such causes as temperance, penal reform, abolition of slavery, non-sectarian education, the rights of conscientious objectors, and the humane treatment of children, the insane, and animals. Clara Barton, the Florence Nightingale of the American Civil War, and organizer of the American Red Cross, was a Universalist.
In the 1940s, Universalists and Unitarians jointly produced a series of curricula in Children’s Religious Education. These were based on modern archaeological and Biblical research, the study of world religions, and new insights in child psychology, and taught a respectful, historical view of religious myths.
By 1960, the Reverend Fred LeShane could observe that, in its 170 years, Universalism had moved “from being Bible-centered to being life-centered, from supernatural revelation to natural understanding, from concern with universal salvation in the afterlife to a universal concern for persons in this life, and from a preoccupation with God’s revelation in Christ to a desire to understand the universal truths taught by all the great prophets and teachers of humanity.”
Meanwhile, Unitarians were on the same path. By 1960, both Universalists and Unitarians included in their ranks theists and humanists, mystics and social activists, some who called themselves Christian, and some who did not. The two groups shared a common emphasis on the values of tolerance, reason, freedom of enquiry, a willingness to accept new revelations of truth, and activity in humanitarian causes and social reform. They finally, formally merged into the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) in 1961, adopting a statement of Purposes and Objectives that acknowledged their Christian roots, but pointed in the direction of universal religion, while reaffirming the old Pietist belief in ‘the supreme worth of every personality’.
Meanwhile, the trend toward Humanism that had begun in the 1930s, continued growing after 1961 within Unitarian Universalism. By 1980, humanism was a dominant philosophical orientation within UUism. A 1985 restatement of UU principles and purposes put them in the form of a covenant, in line with humanist thinking, and added a list of sources of the UU tradition that included humanist teachings as one of the sources.
But the boundaries of UUism have continued to expand beyond Humanism, embracing ever greater religious and cultural diversity. In 1990 the speaker at the Service of the Living Tradition at the UUA General Assembly extended her welcome to “rationalists, theists, humanists, eco-feminists, neo-pagans, agnostics, and spiritual seekers of every variety, rooted in Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism, in our mother Earth, and in native spiritual traditions.” A new (1993) hymnal, Singing The Living Tradition, which we still use every Sunday, draws music and readings from all the traditions mentioned above, plus others, including mysticism, environmentalism, liberation theology, and African-American spirituals.
Newer UUs now often identify their needs as ‘spiritual’ (rather than ‘religious’), and are receptive to a wide variety of beliefs and practices. These may include, for example, Buddhist-like meditation, with no reference to a god figure, or a simple reverence for the Great Mystery of Life, that some still like to call God. Many UUs, like many people generally, find their sense of the sacred in nature. Rationalist, atheist, humanist UUs still abound, and still enjoy the intellectual stimulus of rational discourse; other UUs prefer more ritualistic practices that work through their feelings, and appeal to their spirituality in that way.
Some UUs now find themselves drawn to ancient forms of earth-centred, pagan religion. These are closely tied to the rhythms of nature—the changing seasons, the motions of the sun and moon, and the cycles of life. In 1995, this new strand in the fabric of UUism was officially recognized as a sixth source: “the spiritual teachings of earth-centred traditions, which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature”.
And so, with the ‘edges’ always moving, it is difficult for UUs to know at any one time exactly where the boundaries are. But this is nothing new. John Murray was confident that the 1791 declaration of faith was the perfect and final formulation of Universalism, and lamented the rationalist and anti-trinitarian influence of Hosea Ballou. In the 20th century, traditional theists and liberal Christians in Universalist and Unitarian Universalist congregations felt marginalized by the humanist invasion, and, in turn, these rational humanists see the new emerging ‘spiritualities’ of the 21st century as a striking departure from their understanding of UUism.
The perspective of history, however, is reassuring. As Lewis Fisher, Dean of Ryder (Universalist) Divinity School in Chicago, observed in 1921, “[We Universalists] are often asked to tell where we stand. The only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand at all, we move.…Nothing is clearer than the fact that the old definitions do not meet the needs of the new day…. Each living age has always defined religion in the light of its own experiences, and all ages to come will do the same.” Fortunately, there is a spaciousness in UUism, created by its covenantal principles of tolerance and affirmation of one another, that allows many definitions to co-exist, each recognized as a different but authentic expression of the age-old human search for truth and meaning.