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TERM PAPER APPENDIX 3–Is It Christian? Historical Details on American Unitarianism

Appendix III: Is It Christian?  Historical Details on American Unitarianism

This question has been a source of conflict within our movement, especially on the Unitarian side of our history.  It was a dispute about how far liberalism in religion could go and still resemble its original form—and still resemble a religious movement.   In the 1800s, as ministers and other Unitarians moved west and gathered new congregations, many claimed the label Unitarian but not the label Christian.  They spoke of “ethical religion.”  They argued that attempts to describe the movement as Christian were infringements on spiritual freedom and the liberty of religious conscience.  Unitarians who led the denomination in Boston and those who lived closer to Boston than to the Midwest argued that we would risk losing our roots and sense of identity if we did not, as whole, describe our movement as a liberal form of Christianity.

Points in history often identified as the departure from considering ourselves Christian include the Transcendentalist Movement of the 1830s to 1850s (a literary, philosophical and spiritual movement led by resigned Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson and other intellectuals, most of whom had grown up as Unitarians).

Other factors included the Free Religious Association (founded in 1867 by radical Unitarians unhappy with a sole Christian focus), and the Western Unitarian Conference (founded by radicals to recruit ministers and plant churches in order to spread Unitarianism to what is now the Middle West).   In 1887, this Conference adopted a document entitled “The Things Most Commonly Believed Today Among Us.”  Written by William Channing Gannett, it allows for the presence of non-Christian Unitarian beliefs.

A document called the Humanist Manifesto, was published as a magazine article in 1929 calling for a reform of religions so they serve human needs rather than restricting the full flourishing of human life for adherence to disputable doctrines.  IT carried the signatures of 15 Unitarian ministers, 17 college professors (primarily in philosophy) and one Universalist minister.[1]   All of the signers were white men.  During much of the twentieth century, many Unitarians (and, since 1961, UUs) have referred to themselves, and often to their whole congregations, as Humanists.  For many, this has meant agnostic or even atheist.

To an outside visitor, a typical UU church service in much of the twentieth century might have seemed like a long lecture with a few pieces of classical music, a song or two, and announcements about life in the church and local community.  However, since the early 1980s, many UU ministers and lay members have “rediscovered” spirituality:  the importance of personal spiritual practice, study of the Bible and other scriptures, and exploration of one’s religious background, including Jewish, Christian or other traditional rituals in families.  Perhaps the recent openness to fellowship with indigenous Unitarians or Universalists in other countries is a reflection of our recent rediscovery of spiritual expressiveness.

For more information:  “Unitarianism,” by Mark Harris, The Cambridge Dictionary of Christianity, Daniel Patte, ed. (Cambridge, 2010:  Cambridge University Press), 1263-4.



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