BLOG: The Roots of Unitarianism

A summary of a lesson offered in a Unitarian Universalist Association workshop

Before setting its roots in Humanism, the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis was founded on a legacy of Unitarianism.

Unitarian Christianity was the talk of a title by William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) — also known as the Baltimore Sermon — on May 5, 1819. Orthodox and liberal factions had been debating after the liberal-minded Henry Ware was elected in 1805 to the Hollis Professorship of Divinity at Harvard College, which was the training ground for New England ministers.

Some of the points of contention:

  • Some churches had been moving toward a unitarian notion of a singular nature of God, which contrasted with the trinitarian understanding of God as three (Father, Son, Holy Spirit).
  • Was God a benevolent and loving presence, or a wrathful God?
  • Are some saved and others damned?
  • Was Jesus divine, or human — or a little of both?
  • Were humans good and capable of distinguishing right and wrong, or depraved and captive to sin?
  • Was the Bible alone the basis for religious knowledge, or was God-given reason and conscience needed as well?

By 1812, young William Ellery Channing was the leader of the liberal voice. He talked about a benevolent God who endowed humanity with innate goodness, rationality and the ability to discern between good and evil. His infamous Baltimore sermon took place at the ordination in a new liberal church of minister Jared Sparks in 1819.

His 1.5-hour address (typical of the time) took on two tasks to place Unitarian Christianity as the leading platform, no longer in the defensive position in relation to orthodox views:

  1. Establishing reason as necessary for interpreting scripture, as an aid to revelation, and as the basis for religious belief. “Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books.”
  2. Laying out four reason-based conclusions of Unitarian Christians: the unity of God, Christ as fully human, the moral perfection of God, and the purpose of Jesus’ mission on earth. He rejected the idea that Jesus’ death atoned for human sin. He made the point that Christian virtue was founded in the moral nature of humans, defined by the love of God, love of Christ, and moral living.

The Baltimore sermon did not settle simmering arguments, but brought them to a boil. The controversies raged for 25 years. New England churches continued to split along theological lines. (The American Unitarian Association was established in 1825.)

Within two decades of Channing’s talk, one-quarter of Massachusetts Standing Order churches were openly Unitarian.

Related Notes

Some notable Unitarians went on to develop in 1840 as Transcendentalists, who believed in the individual’s direct experience of the divine, unity with nature, and religious duty to provide witness to social issues of the day.

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Henry David Thoreau
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  • William Cullen Bryant
  • Louisa May Alcott
  • Margaret Fuller
  • prominent abolitionists
  • early supporters of women’s rights
  • social reformers in education and mental health

After the Civil War the Unitarians and Universalists followed similar paths in thinking around evolution and science. Many Unitarians developed — especially at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis — a humanism approach, which placed human welfare solely in human hands. Universalists remained primarily Christian, but were open to insights from other world religions.

During World War II, Unitarians founded a group to aid those in European who were escaping Nazism, and eventually joined in efforts to support the establishment of the United Nations.

In 1961, the Unitarians and Universalists combined into the UUA. Within a few years, 500 UU members went to Selma and Montgomery to participate in the civil rights campaign alongside Martin Luther King Jr. (including several FUS members). Notably, two UU members were killed in that effort: Rev. James Reeb and Viola Gregg Liuzzo.

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