Obviously, this isn’t original research. It is me playing fast and loose with history and terms, since that’s where I’m at right now. These are my sources. But don’t blame them. Any errors here are due to my own failing, and I welcome correction.
Anyway. Back to the bad history and bad theology! The late Middle Ages and Early Modern period weren’t good times to be unorthodox, and advocating heresy was a good way to end the day dead. And unitarianism is still heresy, even right this very second. There were martyrs. It’s important to pause the goofing around to stress that this is deadly serious business. I’ll come back to unitarian martyrs in a future post, after I actually do some reading to get it right. I want to be able to get that part right.
So let’s skip ahead to the United States, and a time when people stopped–as a matter of policy and law–killing each other over these things. In the US, Unitarians grew out of congregations in New England in the late Colonial and Early Republic periods. In addition to a lot of general history, there is a lot of history of theology I’m skipping right over here. A lot of development in unitarian thinking, poof! Also note that I’ve started using the form Unitarianism as well as unitarianism to denote the distinction between the developing Unitarian Church in the US and the more general way of thinking about theology and religion called unitarianism.
So far in this review, unitarians generally and Unitarians specifically are seen as Christian heretics. Round about the first half of the 1800’s in New England they’d created a new denomination called the American Unitarian Association, and Unitarians of all stripes started doing what lots and lots of Americans in that era were doing: spreading across the North American continent. Over the next few decades, their ideas developed, grew, changed, and they pretty well gave up on Christianity (many of them), but didn’t fully notice it for about 100 years. In that time, using their reason and all, they’d whittled their beliefs down to a point where even Humanists could find a home with them. Indeed, Humanist principles are a major thread running through the current UUA. In 1961 the AUA merged with the Universalist Church of America, creating the Unitarian Universalist Association, which is a network of congregations who get together to agree on guiding principles and ways to identify sources of guidance. There’s tension between the concept of congregational polity and a national coordinating structure, and this isn’t the place to address that tension. Also, just to be clear about this, being not explicitly Christian, the UUA is now not explicitly unitarian.
Please notice that I didn’t talk at all about famous Unitarians or Harvard University, or any of that stuff. There’s a lot of highly detailed history that moved people around, highly nuanced thinking that refined a lot of ideas over the course of generations, a lot of bickering, dickering, and voting on motions that I’m utterly ignoring. Mainly because I don’t know it in any way to do justice to what happened in this breezy style I’m using that’s ready to gloss over two centuries in the two spaces after a period. I’m responding in this series of posts to what I’m presented with as UU/UUA today. This is like an orbital view where I can identify a few locations, and, since I live on the shore of Lake Michigan, I can say, “that’s where I’m from” with a pretty high degree of certainty. The factionalism of the past (or even of today) doesn’t yet help me understand why I keep going back to the UU congregation we attend.
These days there are Unitarian Christians active in the UUA, and explicitly Christian UUA congregations (and plenty of explicitly non-Christian congregations). There are also movements afoot to create full-on Christian Unitarian churches and organizations separate from the UUA movement. It’s a lot to wrap the head around, so I’m not going to even begin at this point. I’m focusing on the UUA, UUism (I guess), and my own me-ness.
I was probably a Unitarian Christian for a while. I’m not sure. The time I’m thinking of was before I had encountered the term, but some of the ideas sound like what I was thinking at that time–in the past. Now? If I could claim in good conscience to be a Christian, I’d probably be a unitarian.
But this, from 1894, sounds pretty good to me:
“These churches accept the religion of Jesus, holding, in accordance with his teaching, that practical religion is summed up in love to God and love to man. The conference recognizes the fact that its constituency is Congregational in tradition and polity. Therefore it declares that nothing in this constitution is to be construed as an authoritative test; and we cordially invite to our working fellowship any who, while differing from us in belief, are in general sympathy with our spirit and our practical aims.” cite
So I’ll leave it there for now. Next time: Universalisms!