Unitarian History

Unitarianism is an evolving religion. With a history dating back to the Apostolic age, the earliest Unitarians believed in the “oneness” of God, distinct from the traditional Christian Trinity. They believed that Jesus was a person of great moral authority, but not a deity. In the early days of the reformation, Unitarians became known as free thinkings and dissenters, supporters of religious freedom and historical interpretation of scripture with their ideas evolving towards notions of freedom, tolerance, rationalism and humanism.

There are three fairly distinct periods of Unitarian history:

1) “Biblical Unitarians” were the earliest period. It argued that God was one person, whilst Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God, he was not God himself. “There was a time when he was not”, was the famous quote from the first heretic Arius on this matter (c325 CE). According to Biblical Unitarians Jesus was given the title “Son of God” as an honorific; he a mortal man, conceived of the Holy Spririt who later received immortality and a divine nature and then became “an exalted man”. “Biblical Unitarianism” would include those early modern writers such as Michael Servetus.

2) “Rationalist Unitarians” are the mainstream Unitarians which evolved from the Biblical Unitarian period and whose origins can be found in the writings of mature modernity, including their close allies, the Deists. Most, if not all, the miraculous events of the Bible, including the virgin birth, are rejected as being contrary to common sense. Revolutionary concepts such as the “inherent goodness” of each and all individuals and “freedom of conscience” were fully embraced. Rationalist Unitarians include figures such as Thomas Jefferson, James Martineau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

3) “Unitarian Universalism” is the contemporary historical school, with the name taken from the institutional merger in the United States in 1961. This contemporary version of Unitarianism is non-creedal, humanist, and accepts members regardless of their metaphysical connections, as long as they have a commitment to the universal principles of justice and freedom. One will find among these most modern Unitarian churches a diversity of religious-metaphysical views.

Historically Unitarianism of all varities has been severly suppressed. Perhaps the greatest of early Christian theologians, Origen found himself banished from Alexandria and his episcopal ordination revoked (c230CE) and was later He was tortured, pilloried, and bound hand and foot to the block for days without yielding which eventually resulted in his death (250CE). His heresies included the the subordinate value of Jesus to God, and the principle of universal salvation. Arius (325 CE) was deposed as a bishop and exiled, and eventually allegedly poisoned by his enemies. The anti-Trinitarian anabaptist Ludwig Haetzer was executed (1529). The 80 year-old Catherine Vogel of Cracow, Poland was burned at the stake (1539) for apostasy. Michael Servetus was imprisoned for heresy, escaped, was captured by Protestant Calvinists, and also burned at the stake (1553). Also burned in England for Unitarian heresies were George van Parris (1551), a Flemish surgeon; Patrick Pakingham (1555), a fellmonger; Matthew Hamont (1579), a ploughwright; John Lewes (1583); Peter Cole (1587), a tanner; Francis Kett (1589), a physician and author; Bartholomew Legate (1612), a cloth-dealer; and Edward Wightman (1612) who received the special privilege of being burned twice.