Unitarianism is the belief in the oneness of God, as opposed to trinitarianism, the belief in the doctrine of the Christian Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It thus contradicts the Nicene Creed; as a Unitarian minister has written, "Unitarians and Universalists have always been heretics." The word does not simply mean monotheism, and is not applied to Jews, but to people who consider themselves Christians.
Unitarians are religious liberals who stress the freedom of the individual to seek religious truth through the use of reason. Considering the dogma of the Trinity a corruption of Christianity, they believe in the unity of God and view Jesus as strictly human. The name Unitarian derives from this opposition to the Trinitarians. Unitarians accept Jesus as one of humanity's great teachers and generally hold an optimistic view concerning the ability of man to achieve his own salvation.
Unitarian churches are notable for their high turnover, as people move through briefly on their way into or out of Christianity.
Unitarianism somewhat resembled Arianism, a once-powerful Christian sect that died out by 400.
Modern Unitarianism first emerged in the teaching of the Italians Lelio Sozzini, or Socinus (1525-1562), and his nephew Fausto (1539-1604). Thus "Socianianism" was one of many theological innovations during the Protestant Reformation. It was propagated by Fausto in Poland, where a strong community was in existence until persecution scattered its members about 1650. Francis Dávid (or David) (1510–79), a Hungarian, was the leading proponent in Transylvania after 1565, where the Church continues to this day.
In England, the movement grew out of the work of dissenters from the Church of England, including Theophilus Lindsey (1723-1805), who established the first Unitarian church in London in 1774. It also spread among the English Presbyterians. The noted clergyman and scientist Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) was a Unitarian minister; he formed the first Unitarian Society in Philadelphia, in 1796. The Unitarians later claimed Thomas Jefferson as a sympathizer, as well as Isaac Newton. Jefferson decided not to join the group. Newton was an Arian but died before the Unitarians became active.
For a more detailed treatment, see Unitarian Universalist Association.
In the United States, Unitarianism is also an informal name for the beliefs of a religious denomination, originally the American Unitarian Association.
The American Unitarian Association was founded in 1825, based on principles espoused in the sermons of William Ellery Channing, notably an 1819 sermon entitled "Unitarian Christianity." Unitarians emerged primarily within the Congregational churches of New England, in reaction against the excessive emotionalism of the First Great Awakening (from 1734) and subsequent revivals. Unitarians were rationalists who distrusted emotionalism and saw revivals as unholy. It was originally distinct from the doctrine of Universalism. The Unitarians appealed to a Harvard-educated Boston elite, while Universalism was common in the hard-scrabble farmers of remote New England villages. Unitarians and Universalists found that they shared a common rejection of the doctrine of Trinitarianism held by Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism.
Since its 1961 merger with the Universalists, the American Unitarian Association, has been known as the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Notes and references
- Unitarian Universalist Origins: Our Historic Faith, Mark W. Harris, minister of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist in Watertown, Massachusetts
- Unitarian Christianity, text of Channing's sermon
- See Council of Chalcedon
- Bumbaugh, David, Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History (2001)
- Smith, Leonard. The Unitarians: A Short History (2008)