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A Brief History of Unitarian Christianity

Chris Fisher

Early History-The Apostolic Period to the 7th Century

Arguably, it might be said that Unitarian Christianity, or the belief in one God who is a uni-personal being, can be traced back to the earliest days of the Christian church. Indeed, many theologians and Bible scholars affirm that in the earliest church, there was no concept of God being a tri--personal being as mainstream orthodoxy has held since the 4th century. Be that as it may, there were many different ways of viewing the relationship between God and Jesus in the early church, some more or less resembling modern Trinitarianism, while others took a quasi-Unitarian, or modal approach to the concept of the nature of God, trying in that fashion to solve the idea of how God, Jesus and The Spirit could be described in personal terms in the Bible, yet there is only one God. Still others affirmed that God was a uni-personal being period, with Jesus being a created being, neither God nor man, but an intermediate being.

All of this came to a head in the 4th century, at the first ecumenical council, held at Nicea (modern day Iznik), outside of Constantinople (Istanbul). This council was called by Constantine the Great to settle the arguments going on between those bishops who supported Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, who held that Jesus was true God of true God, and those who supported the priest Arius, who held that Jesus was a created being. Initially, the Athanasian party won the day, after several weeks of arguing, plus several attempts at compromise engineered by some peacemakers at the council. It was at this council that the document that would later become known as the Nicene Creed was drafted, as a statement of what the council considered to be acceptable and unacceptable views of the nature of God the Father, and of Jesus Christ.

However, this victory on the part of the Trinitarians was not the final word. Soon, the Arians reversed the decision, and for nearly 50 years, until near the end of the 4th century, it was Arianism that ruled in Christendom. At the council of Constantinople in 381, Trinitarianism won officially once and for all, though many areas of Europe and Asia that had been converted by Arian bishops and priests (like the Goth bishop Uifilias, who also devised the first alphabet to be used in writing the Gothic language, precursor of modern German) remained so until around the 6th and 7th centuries, when their rulers were persuaded to adapt the Trintarianism of the mainstream church. From this time onward until the 16th century, with few exceptions, Unitarianism, for all intents and purposes was dead.

16th and 17th Centuries

In the early 16th century, the Protestant reformation took place, spearheaded by the German monk Martin Luther. Soon, his ideas about the Bible, Christian worship, tradition, etc., spread throughout Europe, influencing personages as varied as King Henry VIII of England, to the French legal scholar, John Calvin. Soon, aided by the recent invention of the movable type printing press, which made printing of Bibles and tracts relatively cheap and easy, there were Protestant sects cropping up everywhere. Among one of the many minds of the era who began reading the Bible for themselves was a young Spanish doctor named Miguel De Servet. Servet, or as he would be come to be known, Servetus, came to the conclusion from his reading of the Bible that the doctrine of the Trinity, as defined at Nicea and Constantinople, was not Biblical, and he published a work called On the Errors of the Trinity. This book raised controversy and anger all throughout Europe, with the result being the Servetus went into hiding, but eventually was caught and executed in Geneva, Switzerland in 1534, on the personal orders of John Calvin.

But Servetusí ideas did not die on the pyre with him. He had influenced a fellow physician named Giorgio Biandrotta, who in turn influenced two other Italians named Fausto and Laielo Sozzini, and also a young Hungarian minister named Ferenc David. The Sozzinis, who were in fact uncle and nephew, took their reformed understanding of Christianity to Poland, where they formed a church that would come to be known as the Polish Brethren. In the meantime, David set up his own church in Transylvania, and managed to convert the regions ruler, King John Sigisimund. Later, at the Diet of Torda in 1568, David convinced Sigisimund not to declare Unitarianism the state religion, but rather to declare freedom of conscience for all Christians, which he did. This was one of the first times in Christian history where a ruler officially proclaimed tolerance of opinion in matters of faith.

Now Unitarianism, this time as a product of the reformation, was in full swing for the first time in a millennium. But it was different from the Unitarianism of Arius and his followers. This time, it affirmed that Jesus was a man, but that he was one born in a special way, and had a special relationship to God. By and large, this new Unitarianism also rejected as being unBiblical and unreasonable such doctrines as Original Sin, and the Vicarious Atonement as payment due an outraged and offended God.

This new Unitarianism would soon run into troubles, though. After the death of King Sigisimund in Transylvania, Ferenc David was put into prison for the crime of heresy, and it was there he died, of declining health from the prison conditions, though the church he founded would survive to the present day. The Polish Brethren fared somewhat better, but by the end of the 17th century they too had been hounded out of existence. However, there was no turning back. Many others had heard of David, Sozzini (under the latinized form Socinius), and Servetus. They would soon carry their torch

18th Century

All over Europe, as science became more and more respected, and learning began to become ascendant among the general populace, and not just a small, certain few, their began to spring up more and more minds who either read people like Servetus, or came to the same conclusions on their own. Philosophers like John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau, scientists like Isaac Newton, ecclesiastics like the Anglican priest Samuel Clarke, educators like John Biddle, and many others were beginning, despite the fact that in many places such questions could be punished by prison or death, to call into question the validity of the doctrine of the Trinity and other doctrines. They all held the Bible to be a reasonable document, and that its truths were always in agreement with sound reason. None of them could find any justification from Scripture or reason for the holding of Trinitarianism as a Biblical doctrine. And despite the potential danger to them, they made known to the world their findings. Some, like Biddle, suffered prison. Others were forced to move from their homes and homelands for more tolerant surroundings. Still others, by virtue of their standing, were left unscathed.

In the 18th century, especially in England, there were many attempts by Unitarian-minded clergy to reform the church. The Anglican presbyter Samuel Clarke did a revision of the Book of Common Prayer, in which the Nicene Creed was removed, along with all prayers that referred to Jesus specifically as being God. This inspired a young priest named Theophilus Lindsey to do his own version of the Book of Common Prayer, and to work for reform of the Church of England, not that it might adopt Unitarianism as a doctrine, but to at least make it openly permissible as a point of view. Despite the fact that many clergy of the time held similar views, the more conservative priests and bishops held sufficient power to stifle Lindseys attempts at reform. Frustrated, he left the church in 1774 and founded Essex Street Chapel, the first avowed Unitarian Christian church in England. At the same time, a scientist and minister, Joseph Priestly, founded a chapel of his own, and published works in support of both the agreeableness of scientific rationalism to Christianity, and also Unitarianism. Priestly, though, had a rougher time of things than his friend Lindsey-his home was burned to the ground, and he was hounded out of England, subsequently immigrating to America.

In America, Unitarianism was beginning to develop, both under the influence of English figures like Lindsey and Priestley, and its own impetus. In America, Unitarianism grew out of a reaction to The Great Awakening, a highly Calvinistic, ultra-puritanical and fundamentalist revival. Ministers like Charles Chauncey in New England, though not Unitarian, were nonetheless appalled at the attacks on free will that the ministers of the Great Awakening, like Jonathan Edwards, were making. At the same time, Universalism came to the fore as well, also partially in response to the Great Awakening. This movement, headed by men like John Murray and George De Benneville, was largely Trinitarian at first, and did not disagree with Gods predestination of the elect, or in other words, the predestination of those He had decided to save, but rather stood the doctrine on its head and argued that all were in the elect.

In Boston, the premier church of the city, indeed the North American continent, Kings Chapel, found itself without a priest after the colonies declared independence from Britain. For several years, the services were conducted by lay ministers, until in 1785, the church called a young Harvard graduate, James Freeman, to become their minister. Freeman agreed, but while at Harvard, he had been influenced by both dissenting voices in American Christendom, and by British figures like Clarke and Lindsey as well. He had adopted a Unitarian Christian theology, and decided to share it with the Kings Chapel congregation, requesting that he be allowed to revise the Book of Common Prayer for usage at the church so that those who held Unitarian sentiments could feel comfortable using it. Most of the parishioners, even those who did not agree with him, nonetheless agreed that the services at the church should be altered to reflect a wide variety of Christian positions. Thus Kings Chapel had the distinction of being both the first Anglican and first Unitarian church in America, and it remains the cornerstone of Unitarian Christianity even today.

The 19th Century

As the 19th century got underway, Unitarianism was still limited pretty much to Boston and environs. But this was to change, as a young Universalist minister named Hosea Ballou revealed in a sermon given in 1805 that he considered not only eternal damnation, but also the Trinity, to be unscriptural and unreasonable. This caused considerable commotion in the then-young Universalist Church, since most Universalists were quite orthodox in their Trinitarianism. Ballouís opinions won no friends amongst the Unitarians of that time, since most of them did believe in the eternal damnation of the wicked.

Unitarianism languished pretty much until around 1815, when a young minister named William Ellery Channing began writing articles and letters to various Christian journals of the period that had a liberal bent. Roundly criticized by more orthodox voices, Channing nonetheless continued to express his opinions. He was catapulted to prominence in 1819 with a sermon he gave at an ordination in Baltimore. The sermon, called simply Unitarian Christianity, stood out as a manifesto of Unitarian Christian belief, and arguably began the serious spread of Unitarian Christianity outside of Boston and a few other urban areas of New England. Many churches that were Congregationalist split off and became Unitarian.

In 1825, the movement grew large enough that an organization, the American Unitarian Association, was formed for the purpose of spreading Unitarian Christianity, and to link all the Unitarian churches under one banner. This organization continued to grow, though from the start its life had been not an easy one. The first major bump happened in 1838, when Ralph Waldo Emerson gave a speech at the Harvard Divinity School graduation. The speech was radical, in that among other things, it demythologized Jesus to a degree unheard of before, even among the most ardent liberals. This was followed a couple of years later by another controversial address, this one given by Theodore Parker, and called The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity. While its theology would hardly cause a stir today, even among mainstream liberal Christians, at the time it was considered nearly as radical as Emersons address. Like the former, it too boiled Christianity down to a series of essential teachings that stood out from the other religions of the world, and discarded the mythology that its author felt stood in the way of apprehending those truths.

By the 1850ís and 60ís, Deism was a growing movement among Unitarians, especially as one moved further west in the US. The conflict between Deists and Christians in the association was so strong that finally a series of compromise statements of purpose and belief were made by the AUA to allow the Deists to remain within the association. This was not good enough for some, though. In 1869, Francis Ellingwood Abbot and several other ministers left the AUA to form the Free Religious Association. This organization was decidedly Deist in nature, and tended to reject and criticize Christianity in any form as an immature religion. Nonetheless, Christianity remained the orientation for the majority of the members of the AUA right through to the end of the century.

The 20th Century

The earliest part of the 20th century saw the AUA and Unitarianism in general keeping on as it had been in the latter part of the 19th. Indeed, mainstream protestant Christianity was being strongly influenced by its theologians and Biblical scholars, so that sometimes there seemed to be little difference between the two. A response to this by more conservative voices was a series of tracts issued around the time of the First World War called The Fundamentals-A Testimony to Truth: This series of tracts sought to defend a highly orthodox, highly Calvinistic view of Christianity. Most were written not by uneducated backwoods preachers or lay persons, but by well-educated teachers and scholars. Nonetheless, they, and later in the decade, theologians like Karl Barth, would mount a formidable challenge to liberal Christianity. In the aftermath of the First World War, the optimistic view of humanity postulated by liberal Christians in general and Unitarian Christians in particular seemed no longer realistic to many, and many responded by becoming atheists, religious liberals, or going into forms of Christianity where the doctrine of human depravity was a central theme. Liberal Christians and especially Unitarians faced tough times in the coming years.

In the 1920ís, the first and best salvo against the Fundamentalists and conservatives was fired not by a Unitarian, but a Baptist, Harry Emerson Fosdick (Fosdick was also a Presbyterian minister). Rev. Fosdick, in 1922, delivered a sermon at Riverside church in New York entitled "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" This sermon spelled out clearly the differences between fundamentalists and liberals, and remained a sort of manifesto of liberal Christianity for decades after. However, in the AUA, Deism and flat out Religious Liberalism began to take greater and greater hold on both clergy and laity, especially after the demise of the Free Religious Association shortly after the First World War.

By the late 1930ís, when the last general hymnal to be released by the AUA, Hymns of the Spirit was published, a great number of hymns that were not specifically Christian or even Theist/Deist were included, and fully half of the orders of service made no mention of God or Jesus. This accelerated through the Second World War, to the point that in 1945, the Unitarian Christian Fellowship was formed with a view to trying to stop the steady erosion of the Christian character of Unitarianism. But despite this effort, the Christian identity continued to decline, not only in Unitarianism, but in Universalism as well. This was spurred by the introduction by ministers like Ken Patton and Tracy Pullman of the concept of Universalism not as a form of Christianity believing in Universal Salvation, but as a one world religion, coming out of Christianity, but incorporating equally religious truth from all the worlds other great religions (a notion that has continued to this day, modified somewhat, among many mainline UUs). Both denominations suffered a steady decline in membership during the post-war period.

By 1961, the decline of both Christian orientation and membership numbers in both the AUA and the UCA lead to the two organizations merging into one: The Unitarian-Universalist Association. This organization now was comprised of mostly non-Christian churches, many of which had been organized in the last 50-75 years. A few years after the merger, the UCF became the Unitarian-Universalist Christian Fellowship.

The Present

Currently, the UUA still remains a primarily non-Christian organization in character, closer in spirit to the Free Religious Association or Felix Adlerís Ethical Culture movement than the progressive, free thinking Christianity envisioned by either Channing or Ballou. But liberal Christianity has been making a popular comeback of sorts ever since the late 1980s, and this has had its influence on the UUA. In recent years, some congregations have been set up as specifically Christian communities, and there seems to be a small but growing demand for more such communities. In addition, there have been talks and discussions made among liberal Christians and Unitarian Christians about specifically reviving Unitarian Christianity as a specific branch of Christian thought and theology. The future of Unitarian Christianity at this writing, though, is still very much an open book. 

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