The Historical Contribution of Unitarians and Universalists

From a presentation to Jemaat Allah Global Indonesia, the Unitarian Christian Church of Indonesia, Semarang, 10th August, 2009

Early Christianity

There is much discussion over who is the most important unitarian or universalist in history. Today I shall describe some of those people and the remarkable things they did, their contributions to justice, to science, to the arts and, of course, their contribution to the development of the human spirit. But I shall begin by saying this; the most important unitarian and universalist in history is none other that Jesus Christ. This man, who became filled with divine inspiration, gave up a normal life and the possibility of worldly possession and success, and preached a message of universal salvation based on deeds and love.

Now I want you to cast your mind back to those early days of Christianity and think of what the world was like then. I want you to think of a time when our scientific knowledge of the world was very little and where Emperors and Kings, aided by a special class of religious scribes, ruled in a great luxury over the vast numbers of impoverished craftsmen, shepherds, farmers and the like. Now think of the effect the new religion of Christianity had; a religion which provided hope for the poor, and even argued that it was easier to pass a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to achieve salvation. It argued that is was not your knowledge of scripture, or your public exclamations of faith, but rather how you treated others and your internal sense of honesty that would determine your standing.

The religion, despite initial persecution from the Roman Empire, spread quickly. Without a central authority many very diverse interpretations developed in its name. As the Empire declined in power and the decentralised religion grew in popularity there was useful political reasons to incorporate the religion in a centralised manner; thus began the various Councils, starting with Nicea, and one of the earliest matters discussed was the nature of Jesus. One body of opinion, whom Unitarian-Universalism holds as a historical predecessor, was that argued by Arius. He said that Jesus was a human being who, although of divine inspiration, was not a God.

Implicit in this argument was the Adoptionist suggestion that the "Son of Man" was a state that anybody could achieve, but very few will. There is also some agreement with Sabellius, who argued against the idea the God has multiple personality disorder. Unfortunately Arius lost the vote, his works were almost entirely destroyed and he was exiled and died, possibly due to poisoning by his opponents. From the universalist side, supporters of Origen also lost votes at various Councils, especially on matters of doctrine which argued that the various miracles and supernatural claims could be understood as metaphor and allegory. Thus the early Christian church marched away from reason and love towards superstition and punishment.

But although defeated at the Nicene Council, Arian ideas were accepted by the Germanic peoples who replaced the western Roman Empire. Despite what the movies tell us, the sack of Rome by the Visigoths and Vandals, although of great historical importance, was not one of great violence because they had converted to Arianism. Most importantly, the Arian Kingdom of the Ostrogoths made genuine efforts to rebuild Rome and allowed a high level of religious freedom for the Roman Catholics and Jews. The King Theodoric The Great argued; "We cannot order a religion, because no one can be forced to believe against his will."

This was very different to the Byzantine Papacy, which enacted severe laws against the Arians under Justin and Justinian, who eventually led a successful invasion of the Ostrogothic Kingdom. This invasion impoverished the Byzantine Empire, and ruined Italy which was invaded shortly afterwards by the Lombards, leaving it in a state of poverty and mismanagement for many decades afterwards.

The Middle Ages and The Reformation

The Emperor Justinian was also well known for advocating the works of Augustine and especially the condemnation of universal reconciliation by arguing in favour of the separation of man from the divine and the doctrine of original sin. Following the Council of Constantinople in 381, Emperor Theodosius outlawed all Nontrinitarian forms of Christianity. Thus, unitarian and universalist ideas were thus entered a 'dark ages' lasting several centuries.

There were some exceptions of course. Adoptionist views were promoted in the eighth century by Elipandus, a bishop of Toledo, and by Felix, a bishop in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century mystic and scientist, is often counted as a universalist. Also at the same time, the scholastic philosopher Peter Abelard certainly had unitarian-adoptionist leanings, and argued against the supernatural punishment of unbaptised infants. Other philosophers such as Duns Scotus and Durandus of Saint-Pourçain in the fourteenth century also accepted the separation of Jesus from the idea of God.

It was not, however, until the Protestant Reformation that unitarian and universalist ideas were truly able to become influential. The scientist and theologian Michael Servetus of Aragonese Spain in the sixteenth century is most well-known for developing a nontrinitarian view and arguing for a more democratic church. He was condemned to be burnt at the stake by the Calvinist government in Geneva.

Also during that time Laelius and Faustus Socinus developed a secret theological society, which eventuated in the "Catechism of the Unitarians". This was very influential in the development of the Polish Brethren who argued for the separation of church and state, taught the equality and brotherhood of all people, opposed social privileges based on religious affiliation. They refused refused military service, declined political office, opposed capital punishment and rejected the traditional doctrines of Hell.

Nearby, in Transylvania a small principality arose between the great powers of the Ottoman Empire, the Hapsburgs and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Under the Unitarian King John Sigismund Zápolya and the advice of the theologian Ferenc Dávid the Edict of Turda was announced which, for the first time in Christian Europe, set in law principles of religious freedom. Also during this time, in the universalist tradition, people like German Anabaptist Hans Denck argued that people should be guided by their inner moral sense, a goodness available to all, universally, and that the Bible was but a by-product. His ideas are seen as a forerunner of the Quakers.

The Modern Unitarians and Universalists

Modern Unitarian and Universalist ideas have been strongest in the English-speaking world. In England they were initially associated with the Dissenters and Nonconformists, who opposed State interference in religious matters. Their most well-known member was John Biddle, an incredibly brave theologian who was imprisoned several times for his rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity which was until early in the nineteenth century, it was a criminal, and often even capital, offense. For example, The great scientist and mathematician Issac Newton, was a Arian and Socinian, but kept his views private during his life.

When Unitarianism however was made legal, it made a profound contribution to the development of Britain. Among the early advocates of free trade was the Unitarian David Ricardo, perhaps the greatest economist who ever lived. Also many Unitarians were industrialists, inventors and liberal politicians, such as the Wedgewood family (Emma Wedgewood married Charles Darwin), the Courtauld family, and the Chamberlains along with philosophers such as James and Harriet Martineau, and authors and publishers like the Joseph Johnson, Sarah Flower Adams, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth and William Gaskell, and Beatrix Potter and those dedicated to human service, like Florence Nightingale.

Across the Atlantic, many the federalist and democratic congregationalist churches turned towards Unitarianism, and the most famous educational institution, Harvard College was heavily under its influence. Jonathan Mayhew, argued for human liberty and the duty to oppose tyrannical governments; but also, the unity of God, the subordinate role of Jesus, and salvation through character. The scientist and clergyman Joseph Priestley, a supporter of the French revolution and founder of utilitarianism, moved to the United States after riots targeting his republican and dissenter views in England destroyed his home.

Indeed, it is not unfair to describe the American revolution as a Unitarian revolution. John Adams and John Quincy Adams were members of Unitarian churches. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, although formally Episcopalian were for all intents and purposes deist and Unitarian. Jefferson once wrote that it was his dearest wish that every child become a Unitarian and stated in correspondence that he was one. The principles of the separation of Church and State and the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are certainly in accord with Unitarian social policy.

Social justice was a very close interest to the Unitarians and Universalists. The universalist Dr. Benjamin Rush was a signatory of the Declaration of Independence and an early opponent of slavery and capital punishment whereas fellow universalist and medical practitioner George de Benneville was close to the native Americans in his area. This concern with human equality and freedom remained important in Unitarian and Universalist circles; the clergyman Dr. Channing was known for his opposition to slavery. Another, Theodore Parker advocated breaking the Fugitive Slave Act (signed into law by a Unitarian President of the United States, Millard Fillmore, seeking to balance the interests between slave and free states).

The nineteenth century was also a period for the Transcendentalist spiritual and aesthetic movement in the United States, in some ways similar to the British romantics, and was very popular among Unitarians and Universalists, and led by authors and thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, and Elizabeth Peabody - all Unitarians. In the twentieth century, Unitarians and Universalists also contributed to the arts with the composer Béla Bartók, poets like ee cummings, authors like Kurt Vonnegut Jnr, and Ray Bradbury and the founder of an entire culture of interactive story and computer games, Dungeons & Dragons author, Gary Gygax.

Unitarians and Universalists were also heavily involved in the political campaign for equal rights for women, from the early feminist works of Mary Wollstonecraft, to leaders in the suffragette movement like Susan Anthony, through to the literary works of Sylvia Plath. Their contributions to science should also be noted, from Alexander Bell, Herbert Simon, Linus Pauling and, in a most contemporary manner, the inventor of the World-Wide-Web, Tim Berners-Lee. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, founded in Europe in the 1930s, helped Jewish and other people escaped from the Nazis; today it coordinating relief efforts around the world and investigating reports of human rights abuses, including most recently in Darfur.

Concluding Remarks

This brief history gives some idea of the character of people involved in Unitarianism and Universalism. There is a consistent dedication to the use of truth, reason and justice in order to build a better and more just world. But equally importantly Unitarians and Universalists have not engaged in trivial pursuits; it is not the latest popular music or film that motivates them, nor is it the vanity of personal beauty products. It is a relentless concern for the real, serious issues that confront everyday.

James, the brother of Jesus, argued that faith without deeds is dead, like a body without spirit. Likewise the responsibility is with every Unitarian and Universalist to ask, every day and with every action, how shall we transcend the trivial and mundane temptations and instead, how do we build a better world? It will be our dedication to truth, justice and freedom; to human dignity; and our stewardship of the planet that will make the difference.