UU History & More

UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISM: Some Historical Overviews

asset_upload_file876_9928Unitarian Universalist Origins: Our Historic Faith by Mark W. Harris

A Brief History of Unitarian Christianity by Chris Fisher

Timeline of Classical American Unitarianism (1740-1900)

A Timeline of Universalism


The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity ~ Theodore Parker

Unitarian Christianity  ~ William Ellery Channing

The Divinity School Address ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
(Cliff Notes version)


There have been many historic figures in the development of Unitarian Universalism. Here are thumbnail sketches of some of them.


[su_spoiler title=”Jan Hus?”]

Jan Hus (or John Huss) (c. 1369 – 1415) was a Czech priest who became an important 15th-century religious reformer who initiated a reform movement based on the ideas of John Wycliffe. His followers became known as Hussites. He preached about the moral failings of clergy, bishops, and even the papacy. He was put on trial at the Council of Constance and found guilty of heresy for proposing, among other things, that the communion chalice be shared with the laity. He was burned at the stake. Among is dying words, Hus declared, “in 100 years, God will raise up a man whose calls for reform cannot be suppressed.” Almost 100 years later, in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses of Contention (a list of 95 issues of heretical theology and crimes of the Roman Catholic Church) into the church door at Wittenberg.


[su_spoiler title=”Michael Servetus?”]

Michael Servetus (or Miguel De Servet) (c.1511 – 1553) was a Spanish doctor who published a work called On the Errors of the Trinity, which argued that the doctrine of the trinity, as defined by the Niceen Creed, was not biblical in origin. Forced into hiding by this controversial view, Servetus was eventually captured and tried. He was convicted for spreading and preaching Nontrinitarianism and was burned at the stake in Geneva, Switzerland.


[su_spoiler title=”Ferenc Dávid?“]

Ferenc Dávid (or Francis David) (c.1510 – 1579), an advisor to King John Sigismund and court preacher, was the founder of the Unitarian Church of Transylvania. At the invitation of the king, a formal doctrinal debate was held in 1568 between trinitarians and believers in the Unity of God. Dávid represented the Unitarian position, relying on scripture for his arguments. By the end of the ten-day debate, many had been persuaded by Dávid’s arguments and embraced Unitarianism. After a second debate a year later, King Sigismund declared that he himself was Unitarian and that there should be religious toleration in the land. By 1577, however, King Sigismund’s successor imposed restrictions on Unitarianism. Dávid continued to preach ideas considered heretical. He was arrested and later found guilty of the crime of “innovation.” He was condemned to prison for the remainder of his life.

“We need not think alike to love alike.”

Often attributed to Francis Dávid, this thought probably originated with English Methodist founder, John Wesley.


[su_spoiler title=”John Sigismund Zápolya?”]

John Sigismund Zápolya (1540 – 1571) was King of Hungary from 1540 to 1551 and again from 1556 to 1570 (King John II Sigusmund). In 1568, John issued the Edict of Torda, the first broad decree of religious freedom in the modern history of Europe:

His majesty, our Lord, in what manner he – together with his realm – legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the same matter now, in this Diet, reaffirms that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well.  If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching.  For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearings is by the word of God.


[su_spoiler title=”Faustus Socinus?“]

Faustus Socinus (1539 – 1604) was born in Siena, Italy. Because the liberal attitude of the Renaissance had begun to give way to the repression of the Counter-Reformation, Faustus wrote his books anonymously. In his first book (1552), he declared Jesus divine but not God. He spent twelve years in the court of Florence as secretary to the Duke’s sister. He then moved to Poland in 1579 and remained there until he died more than two decades later. He was the leader of an anti-trinitarian movement that became known as Socinians, which at its height had 300 churches. The Socinians’ defense of religious toleration and freedom of religious thought influenced the great British political philosopher, John Locke.


[su_spoiler title=”Joseph Priestly?“]

Joseph Priestly (1733 – 1805), famous for pioneering work in chemistry including the discovery of oxygen, was also theologian, an innovative educator, and a liberal political philosopher. He believed in the free exchange of ideas and advocated toleration and equal rights for religious dissenters, which led him to help found Unitarianism in England. Priestley’s writings and support of the French Revolution aroused public and governmental suspicion, and, in 1791, he was forced to flee from Birmingham to London after a mob burned down his home and the meeting house where he preached. He later emigrated to the United States, where he gave a series of sermons in Philadelphia, which led to the founding of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. Priestly spent the last ten years of his life living in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania.


[su_spoiler title=”Hosea Ballou?“]

Hosea Ballou (1771 – 1852), acknowledged as the leader of the Universalist movement in the 19th century, served as minister of the Second Universalist Society after its formation in 1817, and he remained in Boston for the rest of his career. In his great work, A Treatise on Atonement (1805), he affirmed the use of reason in interpreting scriptures and denied original sin and Christ’s blood sacrifice. Ballou believed in immediate salvation for all upon death with no period of cleansing for the soul. This became known as Ultra or Death and Glory Universalism. Ballou’s belief that all persons are worthy of salvation finds its modern expression in the UUA’s First Principle, which affirms “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” More information about Hosea Ballou can be found in a brief biography from the Harvard Square Library and in an article, “Universalist Manefesto,” by Charles A. Howe (UU World, May/June 2005).


[su_spoiler title=”William Ellery Channing?“]

William Ellery Channing (1780 – 1842) was minister of the Federal Street Church in Boston, Massachusetts. His published sermons had were widely read, and his philosophy of Christian humanism influenced the Transcendentalist movement. He spoke out for human rights and dignity, social reform, free speech and education. In his historic sermon, Unitarian Christianity, applying reason to religion, Channing argued that the Bible should be understood as “a book written for men, in the language of men.” Its meaning should be “sought in the same manner as that of other books.”



[su_spoiler title=”Theodore Parker?“]

Theodore Parker (1810 – 1860) began his ministry at the West Roxbury Unitarian Church in 1837 and soon became an important figure in the Transcendentalist movement. In 1841, he sparked controversy for his sermon, A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity. In the sermon, Parker denied of the factuality of Biblical miracles as well as the miraculous authority of the Bible and Jesus. Later, in A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion, which has been called a Transcendentalist manifesto, Parker further described his ideas about inspiration, Jesus, the Bible, and the church.

In 1845, Parker began preaching regularly at the Melodeon Theater in Boston. In December of that year, his supporters formed the 28th Congregational Society of Boston with Parker as its minister. In 1846, he resigned as the minister at the West Roxbury church. Attendance at Parker’s services grew, reaching 2,000 in 1852. The congregation outgrew the Melodeon  and moved to the Boston Music Hall. The 28th Congregational Society was called a “free church” and its members were sometimes called “Parkerites.” Parker’s association with Unitarianism became strained. Unitarian publications criticized him, and he lost his membership in the Boston Association.  Meanwhile, though, he had become a nationally prominent intellectual.

His theological views were evolving, emphasizing the reality of God over human religious potential, as expressed in his book on Theism, Atheism, and the Popular Theology (1853). Parker developed a new, sociological understanding of society. He his sermons and lectures talked about social “classes,” asserting that the Anglo-Saxon “race” was “more progressive” than all others. Despite such views, he favored the racial integration and became a leading abolitionist. His politics reflected a vision of America becoming an “industrial democracy.” The nation’s government would be a true democracy when it was “of all the people, by all the people, for all the people” (a phrase that influenced Abraham Lincoln). That is, Parker conceived of a government that was an organic expression of the whole people’s mind, conscience and piety, a government controlled by no individual or class but that acted on behalf of all. The American social order should value people for their work and character, rather than their wealth and social position.

Parker considered slavery to be the greatest obstacle to his ideal of industrial democracy, and he opposed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (which established a federal bureaucracy to catch slaves who had escaped to the free states) when many Boston Unitarian ministers  supported the act as a politically necessary concession to the South.

Parker supported better schools and universal education and efforts to alleviate urban poverty. He endorsed women’s suffrage. He argued that the criminal justice system should reform criminals, not punish them.

Parker, convinced that there was no political solution to slavery, joined the secret committee that helped finance and arm John Brown’s failed attempt, in October 1859, to start a slave insurrection in Virginia. In John Brown’s Expedition Reviewed, Parker defended Brown’s actions and the right of slaves to kill their masters.

In 1859, Parker suffered a physical collapse from tuberculosis. In February, he left Boston for the warmth of the Caribbean and on the island of Santa Cruz, he wrote a long, autobiographical letter to his congregation, later published as Theodore Parker’s Experience as a Minister. Parker traveled to England, Switzerland and Italy, where he died in Florence on May 10, 1860.


[su_spoiler title=”Ralph Waldo Emerson?“]

Excerpt from the Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography:

“Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803-April 27, 1882) began his career as a Unitarian minister but went on, as an independent man of letters, to become the preeminent lecturer, essayist and philosopher of 19th century America. Emerson was a key figure in the ‘New England Renaissance,’ as an author and also through association with the Transcendental Club, the Dial and the many writers—notably Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller—who gathered around him at his home in Concord, Massachusetts. Late in life his home was a kind of shrine students and aspiring writers visited, as on a pilgrimage. He and other Transcendentalists did much to open Unitarians and the liberally religious to science, Eastern religions and a naturalistic mysticism.”

“By custom the seniors of Harvard Divinity School selected a speaker to address their class and guests in the spring of their final year at the school. In 1838 the eight graduating seniors asked Emerson to address them. He spoke in protest against a stale, inherited Christianity and called for fresh religious inspiration.”

“Emerson considered his ideas consistent with the teachings of Jesus. He was taken by surprise when his ‘Divinity School Address’ was both acclaimed and denounced vigorously in a storm of controversy. Theodore Parker, the newly ordained minister in West Roxbury, thought the speech ‘sublime.’ Andrews Norton, Harvard’s Dexter Professor of Biblical Literature, labeled it the ‘latest form of infidelity.’”

“The principle objection to Emerson’s address was to his harsh dismissal of Biblical miracles, long accepted by Unitarian theologians as Providential evidence attested to by creditable witnesses. But his critics were also responding to the orthodox of New England’s Standing Order churches, who accused the Unitarians of little by little abandoning Christianity. Emerson had denounced an over-emphasis on miracles to highlight his own emphasis on ‘soul,’ personal and self-evident experience of the Divine.”



More Information About Notable Unitarians and Universalists

Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography

Harvard Square Library: Biographies of Universalists and Unitarians



A list of writings on Universalism (compiled by Pacific Unitarian Universalist, a resource center for ministers, seminarians, lay-leaders and individuals interested in liberal religion, Unitarianism and Universalism)

Classical American Unitarian Christian Sermons and Writings

Electronic Archives of Liberal Religion

Earl Morse Wilbur Rare Book Collection

A History of Unitarianism by Earl Morse Wilbur (1945)

Our Unitarian Heritage by Earl Morse Wilbur (1925)

Plain Guide to Universalism by Thomas Whittmore (1840)

UU: Further Reading