Like all religions and denominations, Unitarian-Universalism springs from multiple sources, acknowledged and otherwise. The overwhelming taproot of UUism is Protestant Christianity, especially the Reformed tradition, with more recent contributions from Humanism (itself connected in ways to the liberal end of the Protestant tradition) and today a wide variety of religions that inform individual members (their overall impact is much more partial). Less often noted are the traces of Muslim influence on the denomination’s founding figures. But while the Muslim influence has never been critical, it has at times played a noteworthy role.
For the Universalists, perhaps the greatest example lies in the religious awakening of George de Benneville. De Benneville was the first person to openly teach Universalism in colonial America. An immigrant from France, he was first turned toward Universalism by the example set by some Muslim Moorish sailors whom he encountered:
Being arrived at Algiers, as I walked upon deck I saw some Moors who brought some refreshments to sell. One of them slipped down and tore a piece out of one of his legs. Two of his companions, having lain him on the deck, each of them kissed the wound, shedding tears upon it, then turned towards the rising of the sun, they cried in such a manner that I was much moved with anger at their making such a noise and ordered my waiter to bring them before me. Upon demanding the reason of their noise, they perceived that I was angry, asked my pardon, and told me the cause was owing to one of their brothers having hurt his leg by a fall and that they kissed the wound in order to sympathize with him, and likewise shed tears upon it and took part with him; and as tears were saltish, they [were] a good remedy to heal the same; and the reason of their turning towards the sun’s rising was to invoke him who created the sun to have compassion upon their poor brother, and prayed he would please to heal him. Upon that I was so convinced, and moved within, that I thought my heart would break, and that my life was about to leave me. My eyes were filled with tears, and I felt such an internal condemnation, that I was obliged to cry out and say, “Are these Heathens? No; I confess before God they are Christians, and I myself am a Heathen!” Behold the first conviction that the grace of our Sovereign Good employed: he was pleased to convince a white person by blacks!
This meeting led de Benneville on a long and colorful spiritual journey that ended with him espousing Universalism in pre-revolutionary America. The whole account is well worth reading, especially as it shows the emotional and mystical flavor of many early Universalists.
In distinction from de Benneville’s willingness to be moved and influenced by non-Christians, early Unitarian views toward Islam tended to be quite exclusive and derisive (no moreso than the general Anglo-American attitudes of the time, it should be said). But there were moments of measured praise as well. Proto-Unitarian and Unitarian arguments over religion in the 18th and early 19th centuries raise the matter of Islam (or Mohammadism, as it was typically called) with rather surprising frequency. While declaiming other aspects of the religion, these early Unitarians were sometimes impressed that a religion with such a large following held a strictly monotheistic (i.e. unitarian) view of God. While a minor weapon in their arsenal, the early Unitarians were willing to point to unitarian Islam as evidence for the correctness of their viewpoint (often as a way to ridicule Trinitarian Christians, in effect saying: “see, even these pagan Moslems can grasp the correctness of the Unitarian position, while you supposedly enlightened Christians hold to a superstitious and irrational doctrine of three-equals-one”). Consideration of Islam often served the role of helping Unitarians to refine their positions, locating exactly what was Christian in their tradition and how it could be argued. In the mid-19th century Ralph Waldo Emerson found poetic inspiration in the words of the Quran, though his view of Muhammad was not favorable. As the 19th century wore on and moved into the early 20th century, Islam remained a frequent topic of Unitarian discussion, especially in relation to the debate over missionary activity. Some used standard arguments against Islam (that took on an increasingly racist tone in the later 19th century) in order to privilege Unitarianism over Islam, in part out of reaction to criticisms that Unitarians were essentially teaching a (heathen and inferior) Muslim doctrine in the guise of Christianity. A growing number of others, however, found much to admire in Islam, and in particular Muhammad’s image among Unitarians was progressively rehabilitated.