“Unitarianism – What is it?”

“Unitarianism – What is it?”
By Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
February 24, 1946

In Time news magazine a week ago there appeared a letter criticizing an article on Unitarianism which had recently been printed in that journal. The article had implied that Unitarians hold certain beliefs in common; the letter denied that this was possible. “Unitarians,” it said, “are so divergent in their beliefs that it is almost impossible to set down any one thing upon which the group does agree.” Which is, of course, as any thoughtful person might expect, a gross exaggeration. No movement holds together for as long a time as has Unitarianism without substantial areas of agreement.

Yet, the mistake which the writer of the letter makes is a very common one. Because traditional churches are based upon a system of required beliefs, i.e., upon a creed, he assumes that a church without a creed can have no basis of agreement. Whereas, for Unitarians, the deliberate intention not to have a creed is itself a most emphatic basis of agreement. Let us look at that for a moment or two. For understanding Unitarianism, it makes a good beginning.

In the first place, Unitarians know the mischief caused by creeds through all the centuries of Christianity. If, on the one hand, creeds have been a basis of agreement, who can deny that on the other they have brought about an endless stream of disagreement? Indeed, it was worse than that. “Believe as we do,” the churches said, “or we shall excommunicate you.” And all too often they went on to say, “Believe as we do, or we shall have you killed.”

It is interesting to remember that the name “Unitarian” was once given to a number of religious bodies which had pledged themselves not to persecute one another.1 This was in the sixteenth century, in Transylvania, and the meaning intended by the name was that of unity. Those who had made the pledge of mutual toleration had to that extent banded themselves together and were known as the “United” or the “Unite-arians.” It was soon discovered, however, that some of those within this league were rejecting the dogma that God is a trinity, and so the believers in this dogma, who began to be called the “Trinitarians,”, withdrew at once, leaving to the remainder the name “United” or “Un.”
And so it will be seen that from the beginning Unitarians wanted to end the troubles caused by creeds; and it will also be seen that some who had this wish were willing to abandon it rather than associate with disbelievers in the dogma of the Trinity. This was repeated many times in later history, in one way or another, and marks the most conspicuous historical division between Unitarians and Trinitarians. It is only fair to emphasize that Unitarians had not required the Trinitarians to give up their dogma of the Trinity; the difficulty was that the Trinitarians insisted upon the Unitarians subscribing to the Trinitarian belief.

I do not mean by this that Unitarians were always gentle controversialists while Trinitarians were always harsh. There was pretty rugged argument on both sides and each can claim its share of stormy personalities. But the issue between them was as I have stated it. And in large measure, it still is. The Trinitarian basis of agreement is a creed; the Unitarian basis is agreement not to have one. Unity is more likely, says Unitarianism, in the absence of a creed than with one. For look at the divisions of Christendom! Moreover, where there is no creed it is easier to follow truth. For look at the Christian churches of today: those which are trying to disguise their creeds, the liberal churches which keep their dogmas out of sight lest they should frighten away the more intelligent among their members. And look at the traditional churches, the ones which still uphold their creeds; see how they have to block the paths of progress, denying even the proved discoveries of science. Surely, not only unity but truth is safer where there is no creed. Thus, as I say, the Unitarian churches refuse to make a creed their basis of agreement, and this refusal is itself the foremost principle to which, as Unitarians, they have subscribed.

Creeds are divisive. They are also negative; they say “no” to new truth. They put the dead in the place of the living; they make yesterday the oppressor of today. It is better, says Unitarianism, to be affirmative, to be free to believe what persuades you, and to follow the truth as it grows. If you do not have this freedom, how can your belief be real? For if your true thought runs contrary to a creed, how can you make yourself believe the creed? And if your mind is open–open and honest–then at some time or another it is almost certain to run contrary to a creed. Are you then to negate your true belief, to try to put it out of mind, in order to maintain your creed? If so, what happens to sincerity? If you probe the matter deeply, must it not be that your belief in creeds is superficial? Or pretended? And in the last analysis delusive and precarious?

Let a man affirm his real beliefs, says Unitarianism. And if new knowledge or experience tells him that he needs to change them, let him change them. His beliefs should most of all be real; nothing should stand in the way of their persuading him. Let us have, not a negative church which suppresses men’s real beliefs, but an affirmative one which liberates them. Let us have, not a creed which stands in the way of plain and honest thinking and impedes sincere believing, but a determination that religious thinking shall be free from fetters, and believing natural and real.

It was this determination which brought about American Unitarianism. Not suddenly, of course, or without relation to the past. We have already mentioned the first use of the name in Transylvania in the sixteenth century. We might go farther back. We might go back to the Arians who refused to believe that a majority vote of the Council of Nicea could make Jesus a god instead of a man. That was in 325 A.D. We might even go back to Ikhnaton, pharaoh of Egypt, or to some of the Old Testament prophets, or to Jesus himself. It is almost impossible for any authentic scholar to put Jesus on the side of creedalists, or to show that he believed that he was God. Except among the Roman Catholics, good scholars have almost given up trying, and are forced to grope for semblances of evidence outside the records.

If the denominations of Christendom were to begin to write their creeds today, instead of taking them from the past, they would find it impossible, and would have to end up either in complete confusion or as Unitarian. Indeed, their beliefs are so unstable as it is, and their creeds so great a handicap, that that is almost their situation even now. Only the Roman Catholics avoid it, and they do it by a flat denial of all opposing evidence. So that, as I say, Unitarianism could go back to Jesus; back, that is, to the kind of religion Jesus taught.

If we wanted to go less far than that, we could remember Servetus, burned at the stake by Calvin in 1553 because he had written a book called “Errors of the Trinity.” There have been many Unitarian martyrs, one of the most recent being Dr. Norbert Capek, done to death by the Nazis in Czechoslovakia. His gallant widow, who is now trying to rebuild his work, was with us last winter in this congregation….Or we might go back to Bishop Francis David or to the Socinians and the persecutions in Poland. Or we might dwell upon the beginnings of Unitarianism in England. Theophilus Lindsey, John Biddle, the poet–Milton, the physicist–Isaac Newton, the philosopher–John Locke; these, among many others, are famous names which mark the growth of English Unitarianism. But perhaps it is best to speak of Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen, a Unitarian minister who was forced by persecution to escape to the United States. He was much encouraged in earlier days by Benjamin Franklin, whose views were also Unitarian. Priestley established the first Unitarian churches, so known and so called, in the United States, one in Northumberland, Pennsylvania (1794), and one in Philadelphia (1796). In 1803 a company of Dutch refugees established a Unitarian church in Barneveld, New York. Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson had declared himself a Unitarian, and Tom Paine had written his “Age of Reason.”

In New England, a movement which had slowly shaped itself through several generations was maturing towards a Unitarian consummation. With the turning of the century, the Pilgrim Church of Plymouth declared itself Unitarian, then King’s Chapel, Boston, and with the rise of Dr. Channing as the foremost spokesman of the movement, one New England church after another. New churches also began to be founded, including this Washington church in 1821.

However, it is not our purpose to summarize the movement’s history. Many excellent histories are available.2 What we want to do is to say as plainly as we can what Unitarianism is. But I wish to point out this: that in America it grew with the nation’s beginnings; it was the religion of many of the founding fathers and a powerful influence upon all of them. This was not in the least coincidental. The attempt to build a free nation of free people was inspired by faith in the free mind and in the religion of spiritual liberation. Just as the tyranny of kings had to be ended, so had the authoritarianism of churches. There was no divine right of monarchs and neither was there any of priests. Creeds, whether political or religious, could not be allowed to stand in the way of progress. If the bondage of superstition were permitted to remain, political bondage would soon return. For authoritarian churches and political tyranny tended together. They always had. Each supported the other. Each was a vested institution, the one with spiritual serfs, the other with political. And so it was natural that whether by that name or any other, it was the Unitarian faith which was the spiritual nurture of American foundations. Freedom must have a freedom-building faith–and it did.

It was natural that Jefferson should be a Unitarian. It was natural that John Adams and John Quincy Adams should be Unitarians, too. It was natural that Abraham Lincoln, though never a member of a Unitarian church, refused to join a more traditional church, and by his definition of his own religion identified himself as Unitarian. It is not a narrow or sectarian matter. It could not be. It is the avowal in all these cases of the creedless church, liberating the heart to unrestricted brotherhood and the mind to growing and advancing truth.

It is true that Unitarianism, down to now, has never been accepted by the multitudes. But it is also true that all American denominations have been affected by its influence. This may be seen, for example, in the liberalizing of their theologies, or in the emphasis upon the practical expression of religion–far stronger in America than elsewhere–such as is represented by the great work of Dorothea Dix for the reform of prisons, almshouses and hospitals, or Dr. Samuel Howe, who pioneered the movement for care of the blind; or Henry Bergh, who founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; or Dr. Henry W. Bellows, who founded the Sanitary Commission which eventually became the American Red Cross. These and many others in America, like Florence Nightingale in England, were Unitarians, and they set a great example.

To this we must add the influence of Unitarian philosophers like Martineau, or essayists like Emerson, or jurists like Oliver Wendell Holmes. Or reformers like Julia Ward Howe and Susan B. Anthony. Or educational reformers like Horace Mann. All this has had its influence upon religion in America. So has the preaching of Channing and Parker, and the statesmanship of Daniel Webster. It would be possible to name so many names that Unitarians have often felt considerable diffidence about referring to them. Yet there is importance in this weight of testimony. For Unitarians are not very numerous. Only one-tenth of one percent of the population of the United States is Unitarian in actual church affiliation.

A schoolgirl who saw that I would be preaching on this subject said to me last week, “Do tell the people some of the things Unitarians have done. In school, we are such a small group and nobody seems to know about us. They think we’re queer. Build us up a bit.” Something like that, she said. And so I am building us up a bit! After all, there are more important things than modesty, one of which is the testimony of achievement to what a religion can do. Although we are only one-tenth of one percent of the population of the United States, one-third of the names in the American Hall of Fame are names of Unitarians. If we hold to a “queer” religion, it nonetheless has helped some men and women to do great service for their country and the world. According to Dr. Ellsworth Huntington of Yale University, writing in 1924, “the productivity of the Unitarians in supplying leaders of the first rank has been 150 times as great as that of the remainder of the population, while that of the Unitarian ministers (I will say this in a very soft, apologetic voice!) has been nearly 1,500 times as great.” I hope the schoolgirl, if present, will feel happier about her “queer” religion!

But I hope that none of us will rest satisfied with testimony from the past. Only what is done in the present can make it important. We shall be judged, not by the history we inherit but by the history we make. And the time has certainly come to carry a liberating religion to the multitudes of the people. Indeed, it is long overdue.

And what is this religion? We have said that it begins with individual freedom of belief. Not the mere liberty, however, to believe just anything at all. The liberty to believe the truth: the truth as it persuades the mind, no matter what the cost or consequence; the truth as it assails the conscience, no matter what the sacrifice.

There are those who think that Unitarianism is the license to hold any kind of belief that may please the individual. This is not the case. Only a dishonest Unitarian can hold a belief–or disbelief–which does not represent his true conviction and his honest thought. Only an unworthy Unitarian can use his freedom to indulge a lazy mind or tamper with the claims of conscience.

No, it is freedom to accept the truth, freedom to follow truth in its advance, freedom to seek it in all the difficult and painful ways in which it may be sought. Truth is not to be rejected because it is new, and neither may it be rejected because it is old. Conviction of any kind is only rejected when it ceases to persuade an honest mind. Unitarians, therefore, are disciples not of a person or an institution, but of truth itself. Persons may be revered, institutions may be sustained, yet neither of them for their own sakes, but only for the sake of what they hold of truth and righteousness. If Unitarians revere the prophets, or respond to the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, it is not because of supernatural authority, or because of ancient sanctions, or because it is the proper and expected thing to do. It is because the truth speaks through such men as these, because the divinity of the soul shines more brightly in their lives. This is a divinity which Unitarians can recognize and thoroughly believe in. Far from denying it, they affirm it: they affirm it as the highest influence in every human life. But they test it, not by dogmas but by what it manifests of righteousness and truth.

Another principle of Unitarian agreement is reliance upon democracy. A Unitarian church is democratic, self-governed, free from interference by a hierarchy. Its membership is open to all who share its purposes and is achieved by signing its covenant or constitution. But reliance upon democracy goes further than the church itself. It is upheld in all human relationships. For democracy is not merely a matter of method but a level of life. All human beings are worthy of participation in the affairs of human society, and all should be encouraged to accept its opportunities and disciplines. In this way the individual achieves his fullest possibilities and the social group is benefited by his services. Democracy, in the last analysis, is brotherhood in action, the devotion of each in the service of all. As all souls are equal, none may be subjected; and this should be true both of church and state. There can be difference in function, degrees of ability, varieties of talent; there can also be leadership, elected and chosen; but whether in church or state, there is only one quality of persons, one equal justice, and one worth of souls.

To Unitarians, also, the brotherhood of man is not restricted, whether by nation, race or creed. This means that the world is one community, whatever may be its several cultures and its many provinces. No one is shut out from human brotherhood because of color, nationality, or religion. Unitarians do not expect the entire world to accept the Christian creed. They do not support missionaries to try to bring about this mistaken and impossible purpose. They look to the common underlying faith of all mankind to draw the peoples of the earth together, not through conversion from one faith to another, but through federating all traditions in a common loyalty to what unites them, and in the building of a higher truth through freedom of belief. Instead of missionaries Unitarians support their Service Committee, operating wherever the means and opportunity afford; and this Committee dispenses food, clothing, medicine, relief and aid of every kind, irrespective of nation, race or creed.

The goal of Unitarian effort is not to save the individual from hell or enable him to find a place in heaven; whatever their beliefs about life after death–and they vary greatly–Unitarians are willing to take “one world at a time.” This present world, so torn by countless miseries, they desire to see made just and righteous, beautiful and happy; the universal and beloved community. They join with all who share this purpose in any venture which may lead towards it, and are less concerned with piety than with the spread of useful righteousness.

These, then, are the areas of Unitarian agreement. Within them, beliefs can vary greatly. In what they think about God, or providence, or the Bible, or prayer, or any of a hundred other questions, Unitarians may differ, and they do. What their church requires of them is honest seeking and sincere conviction. Unitarians, like other people, will be much concerned with these questions. They want to learn as much as can be learned, and whenever they learn better to revise their individual beliefs. Nothing could be farther from the fact than to suppose that because these matters are not put into a creed, Unitarians are not concerned with them. The truth is that they are so deeply concerned that they would not dare to put them in a creed. They want the living, growing reality of religion. They want a religion that does not stand in the way of honest faith, an affirmative religion that liberates them to follow what the mind can know, to venture where the heart gives courage, and to keep the soul forever in its pilgrimage towards the future.

Meanwhile, they believe that faith means action, too. That it manifests itself in character, and in ideals and purposes. There can be no supernatural salvations, no moral miracles. Just as God must think through human minds, so must the life of man be cleansed by human effort and endeavor. This is not a merely individual thing, but true devotion to sincere and actual purposes. On means and methods, Unitarians will often differ, but they cannot differ on the goals in view. That is to say, they cannot do so without falling below the standards of their church. They are committed to the purposes of human brotherhood. They are committed by the Unitarian inheritance, consecrated by the multitude of Unitarian social pioneers; they are committed by the very nature of their covenant, which is universal in its brotherhood; they are committed by the living conscience of the age in which they live, as Unitarians have always been before them.

Let no one say, therefore, that it is difficult to know what Unitarianism is, or that it contains no area of agreement. It is the most affirmative of all religions, the boldest in its claim, and the widest in its outreach and inclusiveness. Instead of creed, it agrees to follow the living truth, and sets its people free to do so. Instead of ritual pieties, it asks devotion to the deeds that make the world more righteous and its people just. It separates itself from no company of believers, whether Christian or otherwise, except as they deny its claim for freedom. It asks no wide dominion for its institutions; only a liberty of access for its faith. It trusts that in the years before us, Unitarian freedom will be claimed in all denominations, all communions; and meanwhile, it must humbly do its best to lead the way.

In closing, there is one thing more to say. There are millions of Unitarians in America today, but not in Unitarian churches. There are millions of Unitarians who do not know that such a church exists. They do not know its history. They do not know its basis. They do not know its purposes. They do not know that they themselves are Unitarians. If a true religion is to shape the world to peace and freedom, these people must be joined together to advance its cause.

Religions with worn-out creeds cannot do it. Irreligion cannot do it. Confused religions cannot do it. If the strength of a free man’s faith is to be the undergirding of the world tomorrow, a world so full of dangers, yet so rich in opportunities, and if the people of America must rise to take their place within this venture, then there must be hundreds of new churches, and multitudes of pioneers. This will come about partly if Unitarians will preach their faith, for there are many who are ready to hear it. But it will come about most surely if Unitarians are willing to live their faith–live it into aim and purpose, fearing nothing but the reproach of conscience–for such a faith lived into actual life would be the power of God himself, invincible.

Prayer: O God, our fathers gave us freedom for the truth; let it lead us, let it live within us, let it speak when we speak and shine in our deeds. Amen.

1. vide Graves, Charles, A History of Unitarianism, Beacon Press
2. The most recent and best: Earl Morse Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism, Harvard University Press, 1945.

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