Unitarianism

A system of religious thought which rejects the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Christ, and seeks to show that genuinely religious community can be created without doctrinal conformity. It has evolved from emphasis on scriptural authority to a foundation on reason and experience. Unitarians believe in the goodness of human nature, criticize doctrines of the Fall, the Atonement, and eternal damnation, and require only openness to divine inspiration. In polity they are congregationalists.

As an organized movement Unitarianism, first in Poland and Hungary, dates from the Anabaptists* of the Reformation, but not until recently have there been Unitarian denominations. In the early church, implicit anti-Trinitarianism was expressed in Dynamic Monarchianism,* Arianism,* and Adoptianism,* and later in Paulician* circles. Severely limited by Nicene orthodoxy, it grew nonetheless in certain areas, notably Spain, until the condemnation of Felix of Urgel* by the Frankish Church in a.d. 799. It was revived in the Reformation period and was most obvious among Socinians.* It spread particularly in Poland and Hungary in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and later in England and America. Prominent anti-Trinitarian proponents were Girgio Blandrata, Francis David, Michael Servetus,* Fausto Sozzini, and John Biddle.* Servetus died at the stake for his views, but others fared better. In Poland the Piedmontese physician Blandrata dominated the early phases of the movement from 1558 until 1563. In 1565, Polish Unitarians were excluded from the synod of the Reformed Church, but under the Italian Sozzini from 1579 until 1604 they created their own synods as the “Minor Church” and issued the Unitarian Racovian Catechism* in 1605. They built a church college at Racow and had about 125 congregations, but after the death of Sozzini (1604) they lost influence. In 1638 Jesuits took over their college, and in 1658 Unitarians were expelled from Poland.

Meanwhile Blandrata had gone to Hungary as court physician (1563) and won his monarch John Sigismund to anti-Trinitarianism. David, made Unitarian bishop in 1568, had troubles after the king's death in 1570, partly because Blandrata was now retreating from Unitarianism, partly because David opposed prayer to Christ. Blandrata was instrumental in having him imprisoned, and in 1579 David died in the dungeon. Although harassed by the government, Unitarians created a common confession in 1638, and later were recognized.

English Unitarianism is traced to John Biddle, although no separate congregation existed until Theophilus Lindsey formed Essex Chapel, London, in 1774. A notable contemporary of Lindsey was Joseph Priestley,* the scientist, who ministered to Unitarian congregations in Leeds and later Birmingham before a mob, angry at his support of the French Republic, destroyed his chapel and his belongings. In 1794 he went to the United States and formed a church at Northumberland, Pennsylvania. English Unitarians were recognized by law in 1813; the British and Foreign Unitarian Association was formed in 1825; and in 1881 the national conference was created. One vehicle of Unitarian expression was the Robert Hibbert Fund, which sponsored the Hibbert Journal and the Hibbert Lectures.

The most successful Unitarian church body has been in the USA. Although prominent Americans like Thomas Jefferson* held anti-Trinitarian ideas, and although the first Unitarian congregation-King's Chapel, Boston-was formed out of the oldest Episcopal parish in America when the rector, James Freeman, ignored references in the Book of Common Prayer to the Trinity and the divinity of Christ (1785), American Unitarianism developed in the Congregational churches of E Massachusetts. Anti- Trinitarians won their first victory in 1805 when Henry Ware, a liberal, was appointed to the theological chair at Harvard. The Dedham decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 1818 allowed the selection of unorthodox ministers by all voters in the parish, and many churches went over to Unitarianism. Prominent leader of the group was W.E. Channing* who in an 1819 sermon described the true church as creedless: “men made better, made holy, by His religion.” Unitarians created a missionary and publication society, the American Unitarian Association, in 1825, but it was not until activities with the United States Sanitary Commission in the Civil War that they built a stronger national organization. Their first national conference was held in 1865.

In the early years much conflict existed over whether Jesus was divine or if the Bible was the Word of God, and that, combined with Unitarianism's alleged Rationalism, prompted R.W. Emerson* to break with the church in 1838 and to help form Transcendentalism.* Traditionally centered at Harvard Divinity School, American Unitarianism created other seminaries and preparatory schools, and in later years came much closer to Emerson's position. Its foreign work was carried out through the International Association for Liberal Christianity and Religious Freedom in Utrecht, Holland. Its growing national concern was manifest in 1940, not only in the creation of the Unitarian Service Committee and the United Unitarian Appeal, but also in its support of social justice movements. Unitarians were prominent, for example, in both the antislavery and civil rights movements of the USA. In 1961 it merged with Universalism* to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Unitarianism, briefly, has grown along rational, not biblical, lines. Begun by anti-Trinitarians, many of whom were otherwise orthodox, it has evolved into a creedless movement stressing the many forms of divine revelation and the inherent goodness of man. Many have held Unitarian ideas, therefore, without belonging to a Unitarian church. Unitarianism now stresses the religion of the Sermon on the Mount and the oneness of the human family.

J.H. Allen, An Historical Sketch of the Unitarian Movement since the Reformation (1894) and A History of the Unitarians and the Universalists in the United States (1894); G.W. Cooke, Unitarianism in America (1902); H. Gow, The Unitarians (1928); H.J. McLachlan, The Unitarian Movement in the Religious Life of England (1934) and Socinianism in Seventeenth-Century England (1951); E. M. Wilbur, History of Unitarianism (1946); C. Wright, The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America (1955) and The Liberal Christians: Essays on American Unitarian History (1970); H.H. Cheetham, Unitarianism and Universalism (1962).