What is Unitarian Universalism? What is a Unitarian Church? These are two common questions people have about Unitarian congregations.
Unitarian Universalism (UU for short) is a liberal, "non-creedal" religious movement that welcomes pluralism and diversity in its members' beliefs and practices.
The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) was formed in 1961 by the merger of the Unitarian and Universalist denominations. Although historically rooted in Protestant Christianity, Unitarian Universalists do not regard their faith as a Christian denomination. 1
Unitarian Church Fast Facts
- Date founded: 1961
- Place founded: Boston, Massachusetts
- Founder: None. The movement was founded by the merger of two liberal Protestant denominations.
- Adherents: 800,000 worldwide, most in the USA 2
Unitarian Church Terminology
"Unitarian Universalism" refers to the movement/religion that a Unitarian Universalist identfies with. Some Unitarian Universalists refer to themselves simply as "Unitarians" for short.
"UUism" and "UUs" are very common abbreviations for the religion with such a long name.
The "Unitarian Universalist Association" is an American association of Unitarian Universalist congregations. It is the largest organization of Unitarian Universalists worldwide. It was formed in 1961 and is has its headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts.
"Unitarian" and "Universalist" are the names of the two liberal Protestant denominations that combined to form the UUA in 1961. These terms are now more historical than descriptive since they are meaningful primarily in a Christian theological context. Many UUs are not Christians or are Christians but may not ascribe to unitarianism or universalism.
"Unitarianism" indicates the rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity. The name refers to the unity, i.e. oneness of God. "Universalism" is the belief that God will save everyone and no one will suffer eternal punishment.
Unitarian Church History
The doctrine of universalism has appeared occasionally in Christian theology since the early church. Origen of Alexandria (c.185-c.254) and Gregory of Nyssa (c.335 – after 394) are among its more famous exponents, although both spoke more in terms of hope and possibility than assured doctrine. In 1793, Universalism became a separate Christian denomination in the United States, which was eventually called the Universalist Church of America (UCA).
The doctrine of unitarianism (i.e. rejection of the Trinity) has also appeared occasionally in history, but it has been formally considered heresy since the Council of Nicea in 325. Unitarian churches were formed in the 16th century in Romania and Poland, and in 1553 Michael Servetus was famously burned at the stake for his unitarian views by John Calvin. In the United States, a Unitarian movement arose among Congregational churches in New England in the late 1700s, causing a major dispute with in the denomination. The American Unitarian Association (AUA) was founded as a separate denomination in 1825.
Over the years, both the UCA and AUA evolved into liberal, inclusive religions that shared much in common. In 1961, the American Unitarian Association was consolidated with the Universalist Church of America, forming the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Unitarian Universalists have historically been closely involved with civil rights and social justice movements. John Haynes Holmes, a UU minister, was among the founders of both the NAACP and the ACLU, chairing the latter for a time. Approximately 20% of Unitarian Universalist ministers marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery. UU ministers have been performing same-sex unions since at least the late 1960s. 3
In 1995 the UUA helped establish the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU).
Unitarian Church Texts
Unitarian Universalism does not hold one particular religious text to be the most sacred or authoritative. Members use sacred texts from a variety of traditions or none at all, but the Bible is the most commonly used sacred text.
The Unitarian Universalist Association website says the following about sacred texts:
In most of our congregations, our children learn Bible stories as a part of their church school curricula. It is not unusual to find adult study groups in the churches, or in workshops at summer camps and conferences, focusing on the Bible. Allusions to biblical symbols and events are frequent in our sermons. In most of our congregations, the Bible is read as any other sacred text might be-from time to time, but not routinely.
We have especially cherished the prophetic books of the Bible. Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and other prophets dared to speak critical words of love to the powerful, calling for justice for the oppressed...
We do not, however, hold the Bible-or any other account of human experience-to be either an infallible guide or the exclusive source of truth. Much biblical material is mythical or legendary. Not that it should be discarded for that reason! Rather, it should be treasured for what it is. We believe that we should read the Bible as we read other books (or the newspaper)-with imagination and a critical eye.
We also respect the sacred literature of other religions. Contemporary works of science, art, and social commentary are valued as well. We hold, in the words of an old liberal formulation, that "revelation is not sealed." Unitarian Universalists aspire to truth as wide as the world-we look to find truth anywhere, universally. 4
Unitarian Church Beliefs
Unitarian Universalism has no set beliefs, and that is its defining characteristic. According to a UUA pamphlet:
With its historical roots in the Jewish and Christian traditions, Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religion -- that is, a religion that keeps an open mind to the religious questions people have struggled with in all times and places.
We believe that personal experience, conscience and reason should be the final authorities in religion, and that in the end religious authority lies not in a book or person or institution, but in ourselves. We are a "non-creedal" religion: we do not ask anyone to subscribe to a creed. 5
Unitarian Universalists may therefore identify with Christianity, Buddhism, humanism, atheism, or any tradition that is meaningful to them. Unitarian Universalists commonly draw their beliefs from more than one religious or philosophical tradition.
Several recent surveys of Unitarian Universalists have illustrated the diversity among members as well as some general trends. In 1997, the UUA conducted a nationwide survey of 8,100 of its members. One question asked members to choose only one label that best described their beliefs; the answers were as follows:
- humanist (46%)
- earth/nature centered (19%)
- theist (13%)
- other (13%)
- Christian (9.5%)
- mystic, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim in ever-smaller percentages 6
In 2001, a regional survey of UU members in the Midwest was conducted by Ohio University. This survey allowed respondents to choose more than one label for themselves. The researcher noted that "the typical respondent felt the need to circle three or four terms to describe his or her theological views." The results of this survey were:
- humanist (54%)
- agnostic (33%)
- earth-centered (31%)
- atheist (18%)
- Buddhist (16.5%)
- pagan (13.1%)
- Christian (13.1%) 7
This great diversity within one congregation is perhaps eased by the fact that Unitarian Universalism tends to emphasize the importance of action over belief:
Whatever our theological persuasion, Unitarian Universalists generally agree that the fruits of religious belief matter more than beliefs about religion-even about God. So we usually speak more of the fruits: gratitude for blessings, worthy aspirations, the renewal of hope, and service on behalf of justice. 8
Although Unitarian Universalism has no formal creed or standards of belief, the Unitarian Universalist Association has adopted a set of "Principles, Purposes and Sources" that express values shared by most Unitarian Universalists.
These were originally adopted in 1984 and have been amended once: to add a seventh "principle" relating to environmentalism and a sixth "source" including earth-based traditions. The current statement reads as follows:
"We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote [the following principles]:
The living tradition which we share draws from many sources:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
- Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
- Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
- Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
- Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
- Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
- Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature. 9
The Seven Principles are especially central to Unitarian Universalist self-understanding and are frequently mentioned.
Unitarian Church Practices
Unitarian Universalist practices are a combination of Protestant Christian forms and content from a variety of religious traditions.
Religious services are usually held on Sundays and generally resemble Protestant services in outward forms. The service usually includes a sermon (by either a minister or lay leader), singing of hymns, a time of sharing "joys and concerns," and prayer/meditation/silence. UU publishes its own hymnals and songbooks; most songs are original compositions, while others are derived from Christian, Native American, Buddhist or other traditions.
Life events such as child dedication, coming of age, marriage and death are marked with special ceremonies which vary in their content. Baptism is not generally practiced. Coming of age ceremonies often involve the young person developing his or own belief statement.
Holidays from various religions may be celebrated at a Unitarian Universalist church:
Though practices vary in our congregations and change over time, UUs celebrate many of the great religious holidays with enthusiasm. Whether we gather to celebrate Christmas, Passover, or the Hindu holiday Divali, we do so in a universal context, recognizing and honoring religious observances and festivals as innate and needful in all human cultures. 10
Communion (or Eucharist) is also not often found in Unitarian Universalist congregations. Replacing the traditional Christian communion of bread and wine are two original Unitarian Universalist rituals: Flower Communion and Water Communion, each of which is celebrated annually.
Flower Communion is usually held in the spring. Each member of the congregation is asked to bring a fresh flower to the service, which they place it in a large vase upon arriving. The flowers are consecrated by the minister during the service. Upon leaving the church, each person takes a flower other than the one they had brought.
Flower Communion was created by Norbert Capek (1870-1942), who founded the Unitarian Church in Czechoslovakia, and was first celebrated in 1923. The symbolic meaning of the ritual is generally understood as follows (though individuals are, of course, free to find their own meaning in it):
The significance of the flower communion is that as no two flowers are alike, so no two people are alike, yet each has a contribution to make. Together the different flowers form a beautiful bouquet. Our common bouquet would not be the same without the unique addition of each individual flower, and thus it is with our church community, it would not be the same without each and every one of us. Thus this service is a statement of our community.
By exchanging flowers, we show our willingness to walk together in our Search for truth, disregarding all that might divide us. Each person takes home a flower brought by someone else - thus symbolizing our shared celebration in community. This communion of sharing is essential to a free people of a free religion. 11
Water Communion is not as central as Flower Communion, but still common; it was first celebrated in 1980. It is held in the fall and marks the reunion of a congregation that is often scattered over the summer. Throughout the year, members of the congregation collect small amounts of water from various places they have been, including their homes and far-off travel destinations. During the service, there is a time of sharing in which each person adds their small bit of water to a bowl and briefly describes where the water came from.
The resulting bowl of water represents the comingled lives of the congregation, and a small part of it is reserved for ceremonial purposes throughout the year. Another part is saved for next year's Water Communion, symbolizing the connection of lives over the years. 12
- Ann Lee Bressler, The Universalist Movement in America, 1770-1880.
- John A. Buehrens, A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism.
- David E. Bumbaugh, Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History.
- Gwen Foss, The Church Where People Laugh: A Treasury of Jokes, Quotations, Observations, and True Stories About Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists (UUs).
- Dr. Alan W. Gomes, Unitarian Universalism.
- Richard Grigg, To Re-Enchant the World: Philosophy of Unitarian Universalism.
- Kathleen Montgomery, Day of Promise: Selections from Unitarian Universalist Meditation Manuals.
- Paul Rasor, Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology In The 21st Century.
- David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists
- John Sias, 100 Questions that Non-members Ask About Unitarian Universalism (Nashua, New Hampshire: Transition Publishing, 1994).
- Robert B. Tapp, Religion Among the Unitarian Universalists: Converts in the Stepfather's House (New York and London: Seminar Press, 1973).
References & Sources
- "Frequently Asked Questions: Are you Christian?" - Unitarian Universalist Association
- "Major Religions Ranked by Size" - Adherents.com
- "Unitarian Universalism: Politics" - Wikipedia (accessed August 2006)
- "Frequently Asked Questions: Bible?" - Unitarian Universalist Association
- "About Unitarian Universalism" - Unitarian Universalism Association
- "Surveys: 'UUism' unique" - Christian Century, December 5, 2001
- "Frequently Asked Questions: God" - Unitarian Universalist Association
- "Unitarian Universalist Association Principles and Purposes" - Unitarian Universalist Assocation
- "Frequently Asked Questions: Ceremonies" - Unitarian Universalist Association
- "About UU: Flower Communion" - Unitarian Universalist Assocation
- "Traditions" - First Parish Church, Plymouth, MA
- Faiths: Unitarian Universalist - Beliefnet
- Learn about Unitarian Universalism - Beliefnet forum in which you can ask questions of Unitarian Universalists
- The Largest Unitarian Universalist Communities - statistics from Adherents.com
- Famous Unitarian Universalists - FamousUUs.com