American Unitarian Conference

Unitarian History

Francis David

Hungarian Unitarian Symbol

Jonathan Mayhew, Charles Chauncy, and James Freeman

American Unitarian Association Building

Declaration of Turda

In sixteenth century Transylvania, Francis David (1510-1579) became the founder of the first Unitarian faith to be known literally as Unitarian. Francis David had originally trained as a Catholic priest before becoming a Lutheran and then a Calvinist, and then finally a Unitarian. In the year 1568, King John Sigismond called a Diet (debate) in the city of Turda to determine which of the established religions in the area would be declared the official religion of his realm. During that lengthy debate, Francis David held his ground against all the other established religions in the region and convinced King John Sigismund that to declare one religion as the state religion and to compel his people to follow that religion was wrong. King John proclaimed religious freedom throughout his realm, the first such declaration known in history.  This victory did not last long, within three years King John was dead, and his successor did not hold his tolerant views.  Francis David was ultimately sentenced to prison for refusing to acknowledge that Jesus Christ was to be at least Adored, and he died in the prison at Deva in 1579.  The Unitarian faith that Francis David founded is still alive today amongst many of the ethnic Hungarians living in the Transylvania region.

Here is the text of one of King John Sigismond's decrees:

"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 manner now, in this Diet, he 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 superintendants 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, this comes from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God."

Featured Articles

A Brief History of Unitarian Christianity by Chris Fisher

A Theological History of Unitarianism by John W. Gaston III


Unitarian History Links

Unitarian Universalist History - a comprehensive guide to the many resources about UU History on the Internet.

Major Dates from the History of the Transylvanian Unitarian Church - A chronology of the Unitarian movement in Hungary, the birthplace of modern Unitarianism.

Michael Servetus Institute - a non-religious and non-profit cultural organization located in the northeast of Spain with the objective of studying, by way of scientific criteria, the life and works of Michael Servetus and spreading his intellectual and scientific legacy.

Center for Socinian Studies - chronicling the Antitrinitarian movements of the 16th century.

Classical Unitarian Hymns


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Timeline of Classical American Unitarianism (1740-1900)

1742 - Charles Chauncy writes Enthusiasm Described and Cautioned Against as a polemic against the Great Awakening..

1748 - Jonathan Mayhew delivers his Seven Sermons (published 1750), in which he argues that all have the right to make private judgments in religious matters and the duty to do so. 

1750 - Ebenezer Gay assumes leadership of the Hingham Association, a group of ministers in southern Massachusetts who committed themselves to the fight for freedom from bondage to unreasonable doctrines.

1753 - Mayhew begins teaching the strict unity of God from the pulpit of the West Church in Boston.

1755 - Mayhew publishes 14 more sermons in his book, Sermons. He critiques the Calvinist views of predestination, justification by faith alone, and original sin.

1759 - Ebenezer Gay delivers the Dudleian Lecture at Harvard, Natural Religion as Distinguished from Revealed, wherein he argues that revelation can teach nothing contrary to natural religion or to the dictates of reason.

1784 - Charles Chauncy publishes treatise on universal salvation, The Mystery Hid From Ages and Generations.

1785 - King's Chapel in Boston, formerly Episcopalian, ordains Unitarian James Freeman, removes references to Trinity in prayer book.

1794 - English Unitarian Joseph Priestly arrives in America and helps establish churches in Philadelphia.

1805 - Unitarian Henry Ware is elected Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard.

1813 - Unitarian Andrews Norton assumes Harvard's Dexter Lectureship in Biblical Criticism.

1819 - William Ellery Channing delivers famous sermon, Unitarian Christianity.

1820 - Berry Street Conference instituted.

1825 - American Unitarian Association formed.

1826 - Divinity Hall at Harvard is completed; Joseph Tuckerman is made minister at large in Boston.

1831 - Henry Ware, Jr. publishes On the Formation of the Christian Character.

1833 - End of the Congregational Church in Massachusetts; Unitarianism is now the dominant religion in the state. Andrews Norton publishes A Statement of Reasons for Not Believing the Doctrines of Trinitarians.

1836 - Ralph Waldo Emerson publishes his essay, Nature. Transcendentalist movement within Unitarianism begins.

1838 - Emerson delivers his famous Divinity School Address at Harvard, criticizing mainstream Unitarianism.

1839 - Andrews Norton responds to Transcendentalism with his discourse, The Latest Form of Infidelity. A critique of Norton's discourse by George Ripley spawns a debate and a series of tracts from both camps.

1841 - Transcendentalist Unitarian Theodore Parker delivers famous sermon, The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity.

1842 - Parker publishes A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion.

1844 - Harm Jan Huidekoper founds Meadville Theological School.

1852 - Western Unitarian Conference formed.

1853 - AUA affirms Christian identity. 

1854 - WUC affirms Christian identity.

1859 - Henry Whitney Bellows delivers sermon, The Suspense of Faith.

1860 - Thomas Starr King goes to San Francisco.

1865 - Formation of National Conference of Unitarian Churches, which affirms Christian identity; Frederic Henry Hedge publishes Reason in Religion.

1867 - Free Religious Association founded by Unitarians unhappy with the Christian focus of Unitarianism.

1873 - Free Religionist Octavius Brooks Frothingham publishes The Religion of Humanity.

1886 - Unity movement in the WUC motivates Jabez T. Sunderland to publish The Issue in the West; James Freeman Clarke publishes Vexed Questions in Theology.

1887 - William Channing Gannett's The Things Most Commonly Believed Today Among Us is adopted by the Western Unitarian Conference, which allows for non-Christian beliefs.

1894 - National Conference meets and asserts the importance of love for God and humanity, but without a Christian focus.

Unitarian Histories On-Line

Unitarianism in America - the complete text of the book by George Willis Cooke.

Our Unitarian Heritage - the complete text of the book by Earl Morse Wilbur.

Notable American Unitarians 1740-1900 - biographies by Herbert F. Vetter.



Unitarian History Resources

UU Historical Society - supports research and scholarship in various fields of historical interest and provides programs and publications for the benefit of students, scholars, and others committed to promoting and preserving the Unitarian-Universalist tradition.

Massachusetts Historical Society - a major research library and manuscript repository designed to collect, preserve, and communicate historical information about Massachusetts and the nation to the widest possible audience.

Congregational Library and Archives - administered by the American Congregational Association, founded May 25, 1853. The organization was incorporated "for the purpose of establishing and perpetuating a library of religious history and literature of New England, and for the erection of a suitable building for the accommodation of the same, and for the use of charitable societies."

Making of America - a digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction.

2004 American Unitarian Conference