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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.

Emergence of modern Unitarianism

It was however among this environment of extreme suppression that the modern Unitarian movements arose. Simultaneously and independently organised churches arose in Poland and Hungary around 1550. In 1565 the Polish diet of Piotrkow excluded anti-Trinitarians leading to them developing independently as “the Minor Church”, or more popularly, “the Polish brethren”. Originally Arian, in 1579 they adopted the views of Fausto Sozzini and in 1602 established the only printing press from which came the Racovian Catechism in 1605. Less than five years laters a Catholic reaction began, led by Jesuits. The Polish Brethren were thoroughly suppressed after 1638, when two boys pelted a crucifix with rocks outside Raków. Soon afterwards the Polish Diet gave anti-Trinitarians the option of conformity or exile.

Many of the Polish exiles moved to Hungary where the discovered an independent Unitarian Church had been established, largely by the work of Francis David (1510-1579), who moved from Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism before settling down as a Unitarian. In 1564 he was elected by the Calvinists as “bishop of the Hungarian churches in Translyvania” and was appointed to the court to John Sigismund, prince of Translyvania. Over a debate on the nature of the trinity, the now King Sigismund, issued an edict of religious liberty and allowed which allowed David to transfer his episcopate from the Calvinists to the Unitarians. Apart from the minor honours of being the one and only Unitarian king in history, Sigismund’s edict was the first proclamation of religious freedom in Europe. Sigismund was however succeeded by a Catholic and Francis David was imprisoned as an “innovator” and died in prison.

In the mid-seventeenth century an abortive fourth canon against Socinian books and the intervention of Cromwell in the cases of Paul Best (1590-1657) and John Biddle (1616-1662) led to greater openness in discussing religious matters. The philanthropist Thomas Frimin (1632-1697) was particularly active and it is from Frimin that the word “Unitarian” makes its first appearance and appearence in a historical study of the thought (1687). Shortly afterwards a preacher, Thomas Emlyn, took up the title in 1705, although this was contrary to the misnamed “Toleration Act”, which excluded preaching or writing against the doctrine of the trinity. Around this time liberal Presbyterians and Independents coalesced with many transforming themselves into congregationalist and Unitarian churches. The formation of a distinct Unitarian denomination in the English speaking world can be noted in the succession of Theophilus Lindsey in 1773 from the Anglican Church. In 1813, the penal acts against deniers of the trinity was finally repealed and in 1825 the British and Foreign Unitarian Association was formed.

In the United States, Harvard College was providing advanced theological studies and more than a score of clergy in New England were essentially Unitarian. Both the influences of the British Unitarian rationalist interpretation of the scriptures and French-influenced Deism was strong during the American Revolution. The first official congregational acceptance of Unitarianism was at King’s Chapel in Boston in 1782 and by 1785 Unitarians were also noted in Philadelphia, Charleston, Pittsburgh, Hallowell, Cape Cod and elsewhere. Along with Joseph Priestley’s immigration in 1794 and the inauguration of Henry Ware as professor of divinity at Harvard College in 1805, the liberal faith found great impetus and at one stage in the early 19th century all the churches in Boston bar one were occupied by Unitarian preachers.

With a flavour that was extremely spiritualistic, and even somewhat mystical, the Transcendentalists of the United States made enormous headway and were significantly aided in friendly competition by their more rationalistic critics, the Free Religious Association. With key leaders in Dr. William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson and ultimately Theodore Parker, and with the formation of the American Unitarian Association in 1825, missionaries were sent throughout the new country, poor churches were supported and new ones established in nearly all the states. The Harvard Divinity School was distinctly Unitarian from its formation in 1816 to 1870, when it became a department of Harvard University. Other Unitarian schools established in this period include the Meadville Theological School (1844) and the Unitarian Theological Schook in Berkeley, California, in 1904.

“These churches accept the religion of Jesus, holding, in accordance with his teaching, that practical religion is summed up in love to God and love to man. The conference recognizes the fact that its constituency is Congregational in tradition and polity. Therefore it declares that nothing in this constitution is to be construed as an authoritative test; and we cordially invite to our working fellowship any who, while differing from us in belief, are in general sympathy with our spirit and our practical aims.” Free Religious Association, National Conference, 1894

In 1900 the International Council of Unitarian and Other Liberal Religous Thinkers and Workers was established in Boston with biennial subsequent conferences held in London, Amsterdam, Geneva and Boston. During the second world war, the Unitarian Service Committee was formed and was directed by Reverend Charles Joy to assist East Europeans who needed to escape from Nazi persecution through a network of couriers and agents that he established. The Flaming Chalice, an international symbol of Unitarianism, was drawn by Austrian artist Hans Deutsch for the organisation.

“There is something that urges me to tell you… how much I admire your utter self denial [and] readiness to serve, to sacrifice all, your time, your health, your well being, to help, help, help.

“I am not what you may actually call a believer. But if your kind of life is the profession of your faith – as it is, I feel sure – then religion, ceasing to be magic and mysticism, becomes confession to practical philosophy and – what is more – to active, really useful social work. And this religion – with or without a heading – is one to which even a ‘godless’ fellow like myself can say wholeheartedly, Yes!”

Three unaffiliated groups of Unitarians exist in Germany, the The Unitarische Freie Religionsgemeinde (Unitarian Free Religious Community) was founded in 1845 in Frankfurt am Main and who were once called “German Catholics”, The Religionsgemeinschaft Freier Protestanten (“Religious Community of Free Protestants”) was formed in 1876 in Germany’s Rheinhessen region, who in 1950 changed their name to Deutsche Unitarier Religionsgemeinschaft (“German Unitarian Religious Community”), and the Unitarian Church in Berlin which was founded by Hansgeorg Remus in 1949. In Denmark, Det fri Kirkesamfund ( The Free Congregation) was founded by a group of liberal Christians in Copenhagen. Since 1908, the church is outside the Folkekirke (the Danish Lutheran state church). In Aarhus, another Unitarian congregation was founded at this time; it has since closed.

Unitarian Churches exist in numerous locations worldwide with affiliates to the ICUU (International Council of Unitarian and Universalists). This includes churches and fellowships in Australia and New Zealand, Canada, the Czech Republic (where the ICUU is located), Germany, Great Britian, Finland, Hungary, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philipines, Poland, Romania, Russia, South Africa, Sri Lanka and the United States.

In many ways Unitarians have been a thoroughly successful religious movement whose adherents in ideas far outweights their official numbers.  Most people readily accept freedom of religion, the separation of church and state, rational interpretations of allegedly holy books and even democratic management as a matter of common sense.  However such rights are hardly universal to all people on this earth.  Until that is the case and until the actions of human beings is motivated by the love and respect for others, then the task of Unitarians remains incomplete.