The Unitarian and Universalist movements are quintessentially American in their ideals. In fact, Thomas Jefferson predicted that “Unitarianism, ere long, will be the religion of the majority from north to south, I have no doubt”. (Oops, Thomas.) In addition, during the late 17th and early 18th century, the Universalists were the 6th largest denomination in the U.S. (Yet, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, neither of these faiths were focused on promoting their religion while many other denominations were primarily intent on building large numbers of converts.)
Still, a great many important figures in American history were prominent members of the Unitarian and Universalist faiths. Before discussing them however, it is important to say a few words about what was happening “across the pond” as a necessary preamble to placing the two movements (now one religion) into context.
The antitrinitarian Michael Servetus whose heretical ideas of the Unity of God was burned at the stake in Geneva in 1553. In Transylvania, Francis David (a Catholic bishop) preached “Unitarian” ideals around 1560. His words, “We need not think alike to love alike” are still spoken by Unitarians today. He was imprisoned for his beliefs and died there in 1579. His contemporary, Faustus Socinus was an Italian scholar who developed a school of thought known as socinianism while in Poland and Transylvania. These ideas were the forerunners of Unitarianism.
The English theologian and scientist Joseph Priestley, known for discovering the gas oxygen and inventing soda water (1733-1804)embraced socinian ideas, and developed a Unitarian congregation in England. He was so persecuted for his beliefs, he left England for Pennsylvania, where he founded the first Unitarian church in Philadelphia in 1793.
The American Universalists were initially from England, but after settling in Pennsylvania (a mecca of religious liberty), they added to their ranks a combination of immigrant Anabaptists from Germany, Moravians from the area of Czechoslovakia, and the Quakers of England and Holland. While these variant Protestant denominations differed in certain beliefs, they all agreed on the universal salvation of every person after death…no eternal damnation. Their first official church was in Philadelphia by Elhanan Winchester, who also printed the first German bible in America.
So, some were mainline Protestants, others were progressively liberals, and all took an optimists’ view of God.
While I will (in some future post) go into more detail on the deeper history of on Unitarianism and Universalism and their somewhat recent union, here is the promised (not exhaustive) list of UU contributors to our country:
John Adams (2nd president of the US) / Abigail Adams (“Remember the women”) / John Quincy Adams (6th president of the US)/ Millard Filmore (13th president of the US) / Dorothea Dix (a social reformer, activist for the mentally ill, instrumental in creating the first hospitals for the mentally ill, also Superintendent of Nurses during the Civil War)/ Susan B. Anthony (suffragette, allowing the women the vote) / Ralph Waldo Emerson (writer, minister, and philosopher)/Louisa May Alcott (writer, famous for Little Women) / Herman Melville (writer, famous for Moby Dick)/ Horace Mann (father of our public school education system) / Thomas Jefferson (not officially, but in spirit) / William James (Father of American psychology)/ Nathaniel Hawthorne (writer, famous for The Scarlet Letter) / Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (prolific poet and writer) / Clara Barton (founder of the Red Cross) / PT Barnum (Circus Fame and benefactor of Tufts University) / Alexander Graham Bell (inventor of the telephone)/Samuel Morse (inventor of Morse Code) / Walt Whitman (writer and poet, famous for Leaves of Grass) / Fannie Farmer (cook and cookbook writer)/George Pullman (inventor of the railroad sleeping car)/ Paul Revere (patriot and silversmith)/ Linus Pauling (Chemist, Peace activist, winner of both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, considered the Father of Molecular Biology)/ Henry David Thoreau (naturalist, philosopher, writer of Walden Pond)/ William Ellery Channing (foremost early preacher of Unitarianism in the US, his approach was a gentle, loving relationship with God, grandfather signed the Declaration of Independence)
The common thread that ran through the lives of these writers, social reformers, politicians, scientists, ministers, inventors, business tycoons, and patriots, was the call to live out their convictions about justice, freedom, liberty, and love in action. They did not just think about these lofty ideals, they used their talents and time in ways they made a difference. Today’s Unitarian Universalists are called to the same task.
Book of the Day, Lifecraft by Forrest Church
Quote from the Book of the Day: “I do my best to follow Jesus’ teachings, and sometimes (on my good days) I call myself a Christian, but given the manifold possibilities for discovering and creating meaning, I cannot embrace a dogmatic creed, even one established in Jesus’ name.”