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A Theological History of Unitarianism

John W. Gaston III

Christianity as a contained and defined religion was not accomplished until well into the Reformation. During Martin Luther's time (early 1500s) even the number of books to be included or excluded in the Holy Bible as sacred was in dispute. There was much discussion as to which Books were inspired and accurate within the tradition and which were not. This debate along with the translations into the language of each country (vernacular) was not completed until the first-half of the seventeenth-century (1600s).

Unitarianism has roots and predecessors from the earliest Christian times, especially to the Renaissance period in Hungary and Poland. But English-speaking Unitarianism first grew from dissenters in the Congregational (Puritan) Churches in America and from the Presbyterian Churches in England during the last half of the eighteenth-century (1700s). Professed Unitarianism was illegal in England until the first-half of the nineteenth-century; American Unitarians had no such constraint. The dissenting Anglican minister, Theophilus Lindsey, organized the first chapel (in London) using the name Unitarian in 1774. He was a strong influence on James Freeman, the first Unitarian minister in America at King's Chapel.

It is impossible to conceive of the English-speaking Unitarian movement without referring to the received tradition of the Puritans (Calvinists) of the time who simply called themselves Congregationalist in difference to a presbytery or episcopacy as a form of church governance. The Puritans believed in the Covenant of Grace given to the Elect by the Grace of God. Based on Romans 8:29-30: "For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called; and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified." The Calvinists according to this "doctrine believed that God has determined from eternity whom he will save and whom he will damn, regardless of their faith, love, or merit -- or lack thereof." The doctrine of predestination appears in "Christian theology as a corollary of the doctrine of grace, protecting the freedom and sovereignty of God while at the same time declaring his love." [Jaroslav Pelikan, Enc. Brit. v.18, p.445, 1968].

Puritans required each of the Elect to demonstrate to the others some sign of emotional experience of Grace which proved that the person was no longer reprobate. The flock lead lives in which a "Holy Ratio" was practiced, a balance of the emotional side of Grace with the Right Reason of the Elect. As such, two great heresies were always at bay in this ratio: the heresy of Antinomianism and the heresy of Arminianism. Antinomianism ("Against the Law-ism") represented to the Puritans Libertinism, reliance upon subjective, emotional conviction of the self-centered and self-indulgent. One who rejected the combined direction of the church and its community for private conviction was termed "antinomian."

Arminianism (from Jacob Harmensen, Latin, Jacobus Arminius, 1560-1609) was the heresy of rationalism as practiced by fallen and reprobate man, as opposed to the Right Reason of the Elect by the Grace of God. Arminianism had two-forms for Puritans: Intellectual Arminianism, associated with "liberal" religion and science (implying a rejection of revealed truth through Scripture), and Legal Arminianism, associated with moralism, hatred of sinners, moralistic bigotry, Utopianism, and perfectionist, especially with reprobate Free Will. The heart of Arminianism was man's free will applying his reason to the problems of theology and morality. Man then voluntarily figures out the right things to do, and just as voluntarily does it, while God, evidently, just stands by, awaiting the pleasure of his creature. Not only did Arminianism imply a Covenant of (good) Works, it appeared to indicate that man could understand God's will without revelation. It placed man on a perfectionist footing along side God, ignoring St. Anselm's teaching about what we can and cannot think about God. Roman Catholicism had long believed in a Covenant of Works, rejected by Luther and the Reformation leaders. Anglicanism had many elements of Arminianism in it, especially after the seventeenth-century, and John Wesley and Methodism was influenced by it; however mainstream Puritans rejected such notions utterly.

Puritans believed Sin was putting the self before God; sin was self-concern, setting the self above God. Sin made a separation between God and the soul, and by the exercise of free will, a person turned his or her imagination and love inward upon the self and away from God. To a Puritan the object of life was to glorify God and hope for His Grace through Faith. Good works had nothing to do with one's salvation. But many a Puritan held the conceit of antinomian egoism in his heart or longed for the heresy of putting his reprobate reason about the Revelation of God's word as revealed in the Scripture. By the end of the  seventeenth-century most of these dissenting folk in Eastern Massachusetts were known as "liberal Christians."

The Unitarians in America were first known as Liberal Christians from the end of the eighteenth-century to the second or third decade of the nineteenth-century. Their origin was in Boston and eastern Massachusetts. Other founding fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson proclaimed themselves "Unitarian," but were, in fact, mild Deists, never joining a denomination. The Unitarian historian Conrad Wright flatly denies that Jefferson was ever a Unitarian in the sense of being in or contribution to the American denominational movement of that name. The Liberal Christians had two strong objections to Puritanism (Presbyterianism and Congregationalism) as it was then practiced. Both Presbyterians and Congregationalist churches believed in the Calvinistic theory of the Elect or predestination. The Calvinists believed that God revealed himself to those who would be saved ultimately, called the "regenerate." Those doomed to damnation were called the "reprobate." The Calvinists believed that every person born (Romans 8: 29-30) was either regenerate or reprobate at birth, and nothing could change it. In order to belong to the church as a full member the individual had to prove to the elect-congregation that he or she was also elect by affirming some disciplined, emotional experience, in which God revealed the election.

The Liberal Christians doubted the Calvinistic interpretation of Romans 8:29-30, thus rejecting predestination; they tended to believe that each human had the possibility of salvation, which implied the Arminian concept of a Covenant of Works, a heresy which had been rejected from Luther to Hooker and Edwards. By being overtly Arminian the Anglicans and Methodists began making inroads into traditional Puritan New England and the expansion westward into "Greater New England." Secondly, the Liberal Christians came more and more to believe that the idea of the Trinity (the tripartite God) was not only unscriptural, but illogical (in their reprobate, unGraced reasoning). They believed in one God and his unity. Further, they accepted the view of the Greek theologian, Arius (died 336 AD) who believed that Christ was not of the same substance as God (homoousian), but was of similar substance (homoiousian). These two Greek terms are responsible for the rubric, "not one iota of difference," because the Greek letter "i" is called an iota. And homoousian and homoiousian differ only in the "i" or iota. All Puritans, Calvinists, and Trinitarians believed that the three-part God or Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were not only eternal, but always existed (pre-existent) to physical reality. Arians did not believe that Jesus Christ existed until He was born of Mary. Arians believed that God revealed himself more completely to Jesus than to any other man who ever lived, but Arians believed that Jesus "lived," and, as the Son of God, was thus able to cause miracles, and be resurrected by God. The Trinitarians had a problem separating Jesus the man from Christ the God; the Liberal Christians had no such problem since many believed he was a man, first and foremost, but closer to God than any other man who ever existed.

Both Orthodox and Unitarians (Liberal Christians) believed that all Christianity was a "revealed" religion, that is, all we know of God is what is revealed by him to us, especially in Holy Scripture. Christians do not believe that man alone is sufficient to "save himself," or to "perfect himself." Humanists, ethical culturalists, utopians, atheists, and agnostics all believe that man alone is sufficient to perfect or to save himself. To all Protestant Christians (including Christian Unitarians) salvation comes from belief in the Christ, the Risen Son of the Living God. Those who do not believe in this "revealed" religion are not Christian by definition. Revelation is the one point on which all Protestant Christians, including Unitarian Christians, agree.

The belief in the Trinity, that is, the God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, all with different qualities, and always in existence, became orthodox in the early fourth century A.D. At the Nicene Council of Christian Bishops in 325 A.D., the belief in the Trinity was voted upon by the Bishops into Canon Law. However, more than three-quarters of the attending Bishops walked out of the meeting over this argument. There was also the dispute over the exact nature of Jesus Christ and His relation to the Living God. Luther, Calvin, and Other Protestant reformers did not challenge the Roman Catholic Church on the issue of the Trinity or the tripartite God (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), all pre-existent in time and for eternity.

The Creed's chief defender, Athanasius saw very clearly the implications of Arian theology for the Christian faith, and he understood the theological significance of the Creed:

[Arius] has dared to say that "the Word is not the very God"; though He is called God, yet he is not very God," but "by participation of grace, he, as others, is God only in name." And, whereas all beings are foreign and different from God in name," And, whereas all beings are foreign and different from God in essence, so too is "the Word alien and unlike in all things to the Father's essence and propriety," but belongs to things originated and created and is one of these. Afterwards as though he had succeeded to the devil's recklessness, he has stated in his 'thalia' that even to the Son the Father is invisible," and "the Word cannot perfectly and exactly either see or know his own Father;" but even what he knows and what he sees he knows and sees "in proportion to his own measure," as we also know according to our own power." [Athanasius, Athanasius, Select Works and Letters, vol. 14 of Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 2nd series (New York: Christian Literature Co., 1892, Discourse Against the Arians 1.6]

However, the Arian concern was somewhat mistaken in Unitarian or Liberal apologia in the first-half of the nineteenth-century as the theologian-historian, Rowan Williams summarizes in his Arius, Heresy, and Tradition (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1987, p. 242.

"The Nicene faith as interpreted by its greatest defender [Athanasius] thus alters the nature of our reflection of apophatic [negative] theology. The unknowability of God ceases to be simply the inaccessibility of a kind of divine "hinterland,' the mysteriousness of an indefinite source of divinity. The language of "source" or "cause" applied to the Father certainly continues to be used, but not in such a way as to suggest an actually prior reality about which nothing can be said except that it determines itself as Father of a Son or Utterer or a Word. There is no overplus of "unengaged" and inexpressible reality, nothing that is not realized in and as relationship, in God. Thus post-Nicene Catholic theology turns away from the assumptions that so shaped Arius' thought. Arius' passionate concern to secure God against the claims of created understanding to mastery and possession had very naturally expressed itself as a theological transcription of the hierarchical and  mathematically-influenced cosmology of Neoplatonism: God is pure singularity, and the purely single can only be know as the negation of duality; what it is apart from this negation is strictly beyond conceiving, yet it would be a mistake to reduce the One to being no more than a negative ideal limit. There is thus "more" to unity than duality can show. Post-Nicene theology, on the other hand, opposes not first and second principles but creator and creation: the divine simplicity is seen as belonging to the divine life, rather than to a primal monad. To say that in God there is absolute identity of nature, will and action is indeed to say something that challenges the claims of understanding and impels us toward the apophatic moment in our theology: its means that the divine nature cannot be abstracted from God's active relationship with the world. And since that relationship, in which the theologian as believer is caught up, is not susceptible of being distanced and exhaustively defined, neither is God's nature. His everlasting act is as little capable of being a determinate object of our minds as the wind in our faces and lungs can be held still and distant in front of our eyes."

It is difficult to find if any Unitarian minister or theologian ever understood Athanasius position, even today. Next, some Liberal Christians (in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) especially in England, believed in the theology of the Italian-Polish theologian Fausto Sozzini, Latin: Faustus Socinus, 1539-1604), who denied the divinity of Christ altogether. Most American Unitarians were not Socinian, but got blamed just the same for such "English" beliefs by their Orthodox counterparts in the New England.

The first Unitarian Church in North America was King's Chapel, which still stands on the Freedom Trail in Boston, Massachusetts, and became Unitarian in 1785. It is now in it’s 314th year of services at the same location, making it the oldest pulpit in the United States. King's Chapel was originally an Anglican Church prior to the American Revolution. During the Revolution most Anglican [Church of England] ministers fled back to England. As George Chryssides, The Elements of Unitarianism (Boston, MA: Element Books, 1998, p.27) states:

"The King's Chapel in Boston, which was Episcopalian, had no minister to lead the congregation, and James Freeman, a ministerial student [at Harvard], was invited to act as Reader and subsequently Pastor. . . . . Freeman had problems about the Trinity, and confided them to his congregation, who were sympathetic. Freeman was allowed to modify the words of the Prayer Book, expunging Trinitarian references, and to omit the recitation of the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds from the liturgy. The congregation thus became the first Unitarian church in America. Two years later the question arose as to whether Freeman might become formally ordained. The Episcopalian Church declined to given an immediate reply, and so the congregation took it upon themselves [pure Congregationalism] to conduct Freeman's ordination, thus precipitating a separation from the Episcopalians."

Today, King's Chapel still uses an Episcopalian liturgy (Prayer Book, 9th revision, edited by Dr. Carl Scovel], a Congregationalist polity [no presbytery, episcopacy, or higher authority), and a Unitarian theology that is still very close to the theology of William Ellery Channing, a Ninteenth Century Unitarian minister.

The separation of the Liberal Christians [Unitarians] from their Orthodox brethren came about when the Orthodox Congregationalists [Puritans] refused to exchange pulpits with the liberals during the period from 1805 through 1835, called "The Unitarian Controversy." It had been the custom of Puritan churches to exchange pulpits as visiting ministers on a monthly basis since the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620 in order to bring additional fellowship and different points of view to the, sometimes, isolated settlements. Also during this period of Unitarian controversy, the greatest of the Unitarian ministers, William Ellery Channing of the Brattle Street Church (now Arlington Street Church) in Boston, wrote his great sermons and articles about "Unitarian Christianity." In 1805, Henry Ware, Sr., a Unitarian, became Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University, signaling the change from Orthodox to Unitarian theology at the school. By the 1830s the wealthy "establishment" in Boston and eastern Massachusetts were thoroughly Unitarian Christian and not Orthodox (Calvinist) Congregationalist. But they were fully Christian save for the Arian heresy.

". . . with the exception of James Freeman, they [the New England Liberals] differed from the Socianian Christology of English Unitarianism, and held Arian views. The English Socinians attributed to Jesus a fully human nature; the New England Arians view Christ as supernatural, but not one with and equal to the Father. Channing agreed that there was prevalent "opposition to Trinitarianism" among the Boston clergy, but that did not make them Unitarian in the English sense of the word. In fact Christology continued to be important in Unitarian theology well into the century. "Still, I have not been accustomed to preach Christ as a mere man," Channing wrote in 1822. "I have spoken of him as a peculiar being." For Channing, as for most of the liberals at this time, Christ, "existed in a state of glory before his birth, . . . is now a glorified, powerful agent in human affairs, . . . and hereafter he will be our judge." [quoted from William White Chadwick, "William Ellery Channing: Minister of Religion" (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903, pp. 198, 311), in David Robinson, ed., "William Ellery Channing, Selected Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1985, pp. 12-13.]

This firm conviction of the presence of God's attributes in human nature became for Channing the first principle of theological truth. Near the end of his life, as he wrote the preface for his collected works, he summarized his life's work simply: "The following writings will be found to be distinguished by nothing more, than by the high estimate which they express of human nature." His whole spiritual pursuit can be thought of as an attempt to make plain those divine principles "written on our souls."

. . . He could therefore view human error as the failure to live up to the process of self-culture, and human achievement as the successful result of such culture.

This side of Channing's thinking, which based religious certitude in the human soul, appealed most strongly to later generations, especially the Transcendentalists. But it should be remembered that this tendency emerged most clearly in Channing's attack on the Calvinist doctrine of innate depravity. It did not signal a departure from more traditional ideas of Christian supernaturalism. While "Unitarian Christianity" is important as the Unitarian "party platform", and "the Moral Argument Against Calvinism" shows the breakup of the dominant New England theology, Channing's Dudleian Lecture of 1821 demonstrates the unquestionable fact that he and the liberal party still operated within the framework of a revealed and supernatural Christian truth. . . . Channing's task was to defend revealed religion, and to do so he focused on what he saw as "the great objection to Christianity." That objection, "oftener felt than expressed," was the belief "that the supernatural character of an alleged fact is proof enough of its falsehood."

. . . The real problem, as Channing saw it, was not whether God could cause a miracle, but why he would do so. God had, after all, ordained the order of nature. But the establishment of that order was "a means, and not an end," its purpose being "to form and advance mind." When, therefore mind could be further advanced by departing from that order, we could expect God to do so. The miracles of the Bible were the instances where this has happened."

What Channing expounded then was the harmonious blending of rational theology and a faith in the supernatural. Thus "supernatural rationalism," the dominant perspective in the 18th- and 19th-century Protestantism, embraced the natural theology of the Age of Reason, but preserved a place for revealed religion as well -- to supplement and complete what reason could do only partially. Channing mentioned specifically that unaided nature could not establish the doctrine of "one God and Father" and "Immortality," so that the special revelation of the Bible was necessary to make religion complete. It should also be noted that his explanation of the discernible purpose of miracles, the formation and advancement of mind, accorded well with the developing focus of human moral ability that had been prominent in "The Moral Argument Against Calvinism," The supernatural context of the Dudleian Lecture, even thought it argued for limitations on unaided human reason, provided Channing another avenue to show that the sum of religious progress was the cultivation of the spiritual capacities of the individual. [Robinson, op. cit., pp. 16-17.]

In the 1830s and 1840s Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker, both former Unitarians, came under the influence of the Transcendentalist movement which was both radical and essentially pantheist in nature. This movement suggested that one did not need "revelation" from God or Christ for personal salvation to eternity, but, rather, that each person contained within him or her an "intuition" which guided them independently from any outside need or source. Transcendentalism was, thus, anti-Christian, and was the first great step in swaying many Unitarians away from Christianity. It was the beginning of the great schisms among Christian Unitarians and their former brothers. But Channing remained Christian. He wrote on July 6, 1841, upon reading Theodore Parker's "Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity, a key document in the history of Transcendentalism: "I grieved that he did not give some clear, direct expression of his belief in the Christian miracles. His silence under such circumstances make me fear that he does not believe them. I see not how the rejection of these can be separated from the rejection of Jesus Christ." ["The Works of William Ellery Channing, D.D., 6 vols. (Baltimore: James Munroe, 1941-43, 2: 126., quoted in Robinson, op. cit., p.31.]

Because both Parker and Emerson left the denominational faith they can only be considered Unitarian by a long stretch of the imagination, somewhat akin to claiming that Benedict Arnold was an American patriot because he fought for a while on the American side. Emerson delved into extreme antinomianism, saying in fact, "We are all now antinomian." Parker was considered a lunatic by the denominational Unitarians, being called a "mystagogue," by the faithful. The second great influence on American Unitarianism was that of the '"secular humanists'" movement after the First World War. The Humanists were essentially anti-Christian, anti-mystic, and were agnostics and atheists. In 1961 the American Unitarian Association™ and the Universalists merged and formed a new association called the Unitarian Universalist Association. Today, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is made up of about 10% Christians, about 30% humanists, about 30% theists (or believers in God), and 30% of others of differing belief (Wiccans, Pagans, etc.).

The "Universalists" were dissenting Christians in the late eighteenth-century who believed that every human being would be saved (soteriology) no matter what in life they did. This theology is called "apocatastasis" [Greek: restoration] or universal salvation. This religion, like other antinomians such as the Methodists and the Baptists, appealed to the dispossessed and to the poor. Whereas, Unitarianism became the religion of the wealthy and the well-educated, Universalism attended to the needs of the poor and the downtrodden. These two groups, the Unitarians and the Universalists, joined in 1961 to form the UUA. Most Unitarian and Universalists churches belong to this central organization which is centered in Boston.

Since the UUA demands no creed from its congregations, one is free to practice one's own beliefs (from extreme Arminianism to extreme antinomianism). Since each UUA church is Congregationalist in polity (it has no higher secular authority than the congregation itself, that is, no presbytery or episcopacy) it is free to believe as it wishes. However, the Unitarian Christians, belonging to the Unitarian-Universalist Christian Fellowship of the UUA, do share some common beliefs. Most believe in a personal God and a personal savior in his Son the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Most Unitarian Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God and not God Himself (second part of the Trinity). Jesus never referred to himself as God in the Bible, only as the Son. Unitarians believe that this reference means that Christ is not the same as God, but is of God and in God. Unitarian Christians believe that God became "incarnate" in Jesus as the Christ, That God joined with mankind in Jesus Christ (incarnation). Most Unitarian Christians think that belief in Jesus Christ begins the process to salvation and transcendence toward God. Most Unitarian Christians believe in Christ's resurrection, but believe that it is still a mystery, not yet fully understood or explained by science or logic, only in belief (phenomenology). Unitarian Christians cannot explain it, but many of us continue to base our lives and beliefs upon it as do other Orthodox Christians.

Below is one definition of Unitarianism:

One who maintains the uni-personality of the Deity; one denies the doctrine of the Trinity: specifically, a member of a Christian body founded upon the doctrine of uni-personality. The churches of the Unitarian body are congregational in government and independent of one another. They possess no common symbol of doctrine, and differ widely among themselves. They may be divided into two schools of thought, though there is no sharply defined line between them. The conservative Unitarians hold doctrinal views in many respects resembling those of orthodox Trinitarians, except in their denial of the tri-personality of the Deity. They accept Christ as the manifestation of God in human life, thought they do not regard him as equal in character of power with the Father. They believe in the work of the Holy Spirit, though, they do not generally regard him as a distinct personality. They believe in the Scriptures as containing a divine revelation, and in the miracles as an attestation of that revelation. They hold a doctrine of inherited depravity, but not in guilt, except as the result of a personal choice; to a doctrine of future retribution, though not generally to its endlessness; to an atonement by Christ for the sins of mankind, but not to the expiatory theory of the atonement (see atonement); and to the necessity of regeneration wrought by the Spirit of God, but only with the co-operation of man; in what is called "irresistible grace" they do not believe. The doctrines of election, reprobation, foreordination, and decrees, as those doctrines are interpreted in the Calvinistic symbols, they repudiate as unscriptural and irrational.

"The radical school of Unitarians hold views not materially varying from deism. They reverence Christ as a peculiarly holy man, with whom the Spirit of God abode, but in no sense other than that in which he abides with every truly holy man. They respect the Bible as a work of transcendent moral genius, but in no other sense inspired. They do no believe in the miracles, and either explain them as the product of natural causes or regard the accounts of them as mythical and traditionary. They do not accept the doctrines of atonement and regeneration, and do not employ the terms; and they both attribute sin to defective education, intellectual and moral, and depend upon a right education to redeem the world from its effects. The Unitarian movement in the United States was developed chiefly in New England about the beginning of the nineteenth century, under the lead of Dr. [William Ellery] Channing. Many of the oldest Congregational churches in New England passed under Unitarian control and the "American Unitarian Association™" was formed in 1825. Outside the denomination proper, Unitarian views are held by the Hicksite Friends, some Universalists, and by individuals in other denominations. [William Dwight Whitney (General Editor), "The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia in Ten Volumes" {New York: The Century Co., 1889-1900), vol. 10, p. 6621b.]

Definition of Universalist. "One who, professing the Christian faith, believes that all mankind will eventually be redeemed from sin and suffering, and brought back to holiness and God. The name is properly applied to all those who hold to the final salvation of all men, but it is specifically applied to a body of Christians with a distinct church organization who, like the Unitarians, have no authoritative symbol of doctrine, and on points other than the salvation of the race differ among themselves." (Century Dictionary, op. cit., vol. 10, p. 6623b.]

Definition of Humanist: "A twentieth-century philosophy – naturalistic Humanism -- or religion that rejects belief in all forms of the supernatural, that considers the greater good of all humanity on this earth as the supreme ethical goal; and that relies on the methods of reason, science and democracy for the solution of human problems. August Comte's Positivism and the British Utilitarianism were forerunners of naturalistic Humanism, which in its genera position is close to naturalism and Materialism. In the United States, Humanism receives organizational support through the American Humanist Association and in the world at large through the International Humanist and Ethical Union." [Dagobert D. Runes (ed.) "Dictionary of Philosophy, (Totawa, NJ: Littlefield, Co., 1962, reprinted 1979, p. 132a.]

In closing it is worth mentioning that King's Chapel is required by its bylaws to have a "Christian" service. Holy Communion is celebrated twice a month, with the words from the Prayer Book, "The body of Christ, the bread of heaven." "The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation." The Easter Mass begins with the following words:


Minister: Let us stand and acclaim the day of resurrection. Christ is risen!
People: He is truly risen!
Minister: Christ is risen!
People: He is truly risen!
Minister: Christ is risen!
People: He is truly risen!
Minister: This is the day which the Lord has made;
People: We will rejoice and be glad in it.

© 2000 American Unitarian Conference