“What is a Unitarian Universalist?” This is a question that many people have asked and will continue to ask in the future. There are many ways you can choose to answer this question and perhaps none of them will be able to tell the whole story. One way to answer the question is to go back to the start and show the history of the group and how it merged from two similar yet different liberal Christian denominations, into what it is today. From this we can find that Unitarianism, Universalism, and Unitarian Universalism represent a diverse and distinct liberal religious background, which can be seen through the group’s history, theology, and the beliefs of individual members of each congregation. Unitarian Christianity began as a countermovement of sorts to the growing influence of Orthodox Christianity during the First Great Awakening in the 1730’s and 1740’s. The first organized members of the group formed from a liberal wing of the Congregational Church in Eastern Massachusetts. In 1784, the first Unitarian Church was formed at the former Episcopal King’s Chapel in Boston. At its earliest form, Unitarian theology and practice was very unorganized and its congregants often disagreed about what principles the group should adhere to as a whole. The issue that defined most Unitarian belief was the nature of the Trinity and divinity of Jesus Christ.
Most early Unitarians argued that the concept of the Trinity, or the idea that God was three separate entities, had no biblical warrant and was instead just a manmade metaphysical abstraction. Historically, American Unitarians were not the first Christians to believe in the oneness of God. Since the death of Jesus, many early Christians held the belief that Jesus was fully himself God. Even after the Nicene Creed officially adopted the idea of the Trinity in Christianity in the year 325 AD, many Christians challenged this idea and offered various other views on God and Jesus. Many of these groups were considered to be a heresy among traditional European Christian groups and were often persecuted for their beliefs. The non-Trinitarian beliefs of the American Unitarians were shown to have little influence by these groups, but in many cases they adhered to similar ideology.
Perhaps the most debated issue among American Unitarians was the idea that if Jesus was not fully God, what did this make him. One argument suggested that while Jesus was not equal to God, he was still divine and perhaps even deserved the label as the Son of God. Using this argument, it is commonly believed that Jesus can be seen from the same standpoint as most Trinitarian thought in the sense that he was born from a virgin birth, could perform miracles, rose from the dead after being crucified, etc. The biggest issue was more or less simply the label of Jesus as being equal to God. An opposing Unitarian view held that Jesus was not divine in any sense of the word, but rather a moral teacher, who followed the word of God. This view rejected all ideas that Jesus was a supernatural being completely. Instead this idea focused on the teachings of Jesus as a model of purity, sinlessness, and perfect humanity. Many Unitarians who believed this thought the idea of the Trinity denied Jesus his full stature as a person. Many other alternative explanations and ideas continued to form as Unitarian theology progressed through the years.
Unitarian belief continued in the United States in very unstructured, loosely related congregations until just before the 1820’s. It was during this time period that William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) became the first major theologian and spokesperson for the American Unitarian movement. Channing was a Harvard graduate and had been pastor at the Federal Street Church in Boston since 1803. In 1819, Channing delivered “The Baltimore Sermon,” which laid the framework for a central Unitarian theology. Channing stated that the Bible...
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