- The word unitarian means one who believes in the oneness of God; historically it refers to those in the Christian community who rejected the doctrine of the Trinity (one God expressed in three persons). Non-Trinitarian Protestant churches emerged in the 16th century in Italy,Poland, and Transylvania. One of the early Unitarians, Michael Servetus (1511-53), was martyred for his opinions. The Unitarian Socinians grew strong for a period in Poland, but were eventually engulfed by the Counter-Reformation. Socinian publications appear to have made their way to England, where they inspired English non-Trinitarian writing and the founding of a few independent Unitarian congregations among the Puritans.Prior to the 19th century, those espousing a non-Trinitarian form of Christianity encountered intense hostility. The Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ are foundational to Christianity. However, in the 19th century, a new Unitarian movement emerged that found some important support from intellectuals and a more tolerant public.This new impulse is generally attributed to William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), a Congre-gationalist minister, though he was not the first to discuss non-Trinitarian ideas. In 1805, for example, the appointment of Henry Ware to a position at the Harvard Divinity School prompted some strict Trinitarians to withdraw and found a new seminary at Andover. A decade later, concern over Unitarian departures from orthodoxy prompted Rev. Jedediah Morse (1761-1826) to write a pamphlet, "Are You of the Christian or the Boston Religion?" A more liberal minister issued a rejoinder, "Are you a Christian or a Calvinist?"Following his graduation from Harvard in 1798, Channing underwent a spiritual and theological struggle that led him through skepticism about Christianity to a reformulated theology that did not include the Trinity. He also questioned the doctrines of total depravity and believers' election to salvation. in 1803, he became pastor of the Federal Street Church (Congregational) in Boston, but he did not publicly announce his alignment with non-Trinitarian Congregationalists until 1819, when he laid out his beliefs in the ordination sermon for a young minister.The sermon elevated Channing to the informal position of leader of the Unitarians. it provoked many Congregational churches across New England to hold votes and split over the issue of the Trinity. in most cases, the minority party withdrew from the congregation and formed a separate church. in this manner, Unitarian Congregational churches appeared, first in New England and then in other parts of the country. in 1825, a convention of Unitarian congregations was held, which founded the American Unitarian Association.The association, especially in the 20th century, became home to increasingly radical approaches to religion. Attempts were made to formulate a universal religion apart from specifically Christian beliefs and practices. Some members accepted intellectualized forms of other traditional religions and eventually nontheistic religious perspectives (most notably humanism).in 1961, out of a recognition that Unitarian-ism and Universalism had evolved along similar paths and reached largely the same conclusions about religion and the religious life, the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Churches of America merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). The UUA has by now eliminated all evidence of its Protestant roots and no longer considers itself a specifically Christian organization.Further reading:■ John Buehres, The UUA Pocket Guide (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1999)■ David B. Parke, The Epic of Unitarianism (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1980)■ John Sias, 100 Questions That Non-members Ask about Unitarian Universalism (Nashua, N.H.: Transition, 1994)■ Robert B. Tapp, Religion among the Unitarian Universalists: Converts in the Stepfather's House (New York/London: Seminar Press, 1973).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.