Our Religious Heritage

Michael ServetusHistorically, our alliance with other religious liberals goes back to about 1531, when a young man named Michael Servetus wrote a fiery book called “The Errors of the Trinity.” He was later burned at the stake, on the instigation of John Calvin, but the seeds of beginnings had been sown; we had become “unitarians.”

During the sixteenth century, Unitarianism established itself in Poland, Hungary and Transylvania. Some leaders of this period include Francis David and Faustus Socinus. In 1568 the church in Cluj, now a part of Romania, began conducting services and has done so, without interruption, since that time.

Joseph PriestlyThe movement picked up momentum in England during the seventeenth century, but was still–and remained so for another 200 years–what has been called Unitarian Christianity. Joseph Priestly was among the great eighteenth century shapers of Unitarianism as well as being the discoverer of oxygen. Because of his revolutionary views, he was forced to flee England and come to America in 1794. Subsequently, he founded the first church in this country to call itself Unitarian.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Unitarianism was well-established, and received impetus from such commanding figures as William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker. During the Civil War a Unitarian minister in California, Thomas Starr King, was largely responsible for keeping that state in the Union. Exhausted by his efforts, he died at an early age but his name is memorialized in Starr King seminary in Berkeley. The first president of Stanford University, David Jordan, was so impressed by King’s character that he assumed Starr as his own middle name.

Ralph Waldo EmersonHowever, it was not until 1828 that the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches was founded. This was the beginning of the association as a national organization.

In the meantime, the Universalists had been growing side by side with the Unitarians, having been formed as a separate association in the eighteenth century in this country. The roots of the beliefs that distinguished it in its beginnings also go far back in history, back to Origen and his theory of universal salvation. However, like their fellow religious liberals the Unitarians, the essential nature of the Universalists’ beliefs changed with the years and by the end of the nineteenth century, they too embraced social justice, the dignity of the individual and the possibility of comprehending the universe. Some names which are outstanding in this movement are John Murray and Hosea Ballou, father and son.

In 1961, the Unitarian and Universalist churches became one.