Category Archives: Unitarianism

Coming Soon: An Introduction to the Unitarian and Universalist Traditions

Mark Harris, former president of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society and author of many books on Unitarian-Universalist subjects, has a new co-written (with Andrea Greenwood) volume coming out next month from Cambridge University Press.  An Introduction to the Unitarian and Universalist Traditions is the latest offering in the long-running Introduction to Religion series.  While details will have to wait until the book is released, it is clear that Greenwood and Harris situation Unitarian-Universalism as a global religion, with the United States just one (important) site for the religion’s development.  Here is the table of contents:

1. Liberal religion and the foundations of the Unitarian and Universalist faiths
2. The European background
3. Great Britain
4. Early America
5. Unitarians and Universalists in the Republic
6. A religion for one world
7. Polity
8. Theology
9. Worship
10. Science and ecology
11. Architecture, music and the arts
12. Education, welfare and human rights
13. Unitarian Universalism in the 21st century.

Harris has produced many fine books worth checking out, most recently the slim but important Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History.  He also wrote the massive reference volume Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism (hint: available far cheaper in the paperback version with the title The A to Z of Unitarian Universalism).


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Filed under Book Notes, Liberal Religious History, Unitarian-Universalism, Unitarianism, Universalism

Servetus’ 500th Birthday Celebration at Harvard University

Here’s another event coming up.  Thanks to Dan McKanan for sending out the announcements:

Tuesday, September 27, 7-9:30pm: There will be a dramatic representation of the life of Michael Servetus (Miguel Serveto) and a panel discussion featuring Dan MaKanan, Lilia Cuervo, and Ron Cordes.  Long Strange Trip: 2000 Years of UU History, Part 1 (a film by Cordes) will also be screened, and there will be refreshments.  Servetus, physician and theologian, is remembered as a unitarian who was martyred by Calvin’s forces.

Andover Chapel, Harvard Divinity School, 45 Francis Avenue, Cambridge, MA
Contact: Linda Simmons,, 603-498-9520

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Filed under Liberal Religious History, Unitarianism


Calling oneself a Unitarian-Universalist is the denominational equivalent of the opening scene in the original Star Wars movie, when the Imperial star destroyer flies over the camera and just keeps passing and passing for what seems like an eternity.  But cheer up, because things could’ve been much worse: you might’ve ended up as a Unitarian-Puddingist.  Then you’d not only have a long name, but an embarrassing one too.  Believe it or not, “pudding” was an 18th century colonial American code word for Universalism.  Here’s the back story:

Universalism has long been a heresy in the eyes of most Christians.  Today, in North America, we enjoy a historically almost-unimaginable degree of religious tolerance, and so everyone is pretty much left alone to believe or disbelieve whatever they wish.  But for most of American history (to say nothing of earlier times), it was socially unacceptable, even illegal to believe that God was loving enough to save all God’s children.  Thus when people came to hold Universalist principles, they often had to keep them to themselves.

This is the situation in which Charles Chauncy, one of the greatest ministers of the 18th century, found himself in the 1750s.  Chauncy was one of the stalwarts of colonial New England: he possessed a ferocious intelligence, deep scholarship, and the kind of elite social connections that made his voice impossible to ignore in theological matters.  Yet when his study of the Bible led him to settle, to his surprise, on Universalist views concerning salvation, even he was obliged to keep it secret.  He wrote a book on the subject, yet kept it hidden for the better part of thirty years.

In the meantime, a select number of his inner circle of colleagues were privileged to read or hear about the book.  To keep Chauncy from being hounded out of his position by the bigotry of the Calvinist orthodox, the book was always referred to by the code term “the pudding.”  Thus ministers “in the know” wrote to one another inquiring whether they had eaten the pudding, and how they found its taste if they had done so.

This actually went on for years, until finally Chauncy was obliged to publish the book as word of it leaked out and he was accused of being a Murrayite (i.e. a Universalist, a follower of John Murray, the founder of Universalism in America).  To be a Universalist was terrible enough, but for Chauncy and his circle to be a Murrayite was even more shameful–they were strict opponents of Murray and his itenerant preaching of Universalism, which imposed on what they felt were their natural rights as the settled ministers of New England parishes, and stirred up emotional religious feeling, which the rationalist Chauncyites and their ilk disapproved of.  Which is to say, their objections were mainly class-based; or, we might say, they were theological differences rooted deeply in class differences.  Chauncy agreed with Murray on the matter of universal salvation by a benevolent God, but Murray’s was the wrong type of Universalism.  This is a primary reason why Chauncy is usually written about as an ancestor of the Unitarians, rather than the Universalists, even though his views were just as firm on universal salvation as they were on anti-Trinitarianism.

Finally, in 1784 Chauncy served the pudding, titling it The Mystery Hid from Ages and Generations, Made Manifest by the Gospel-Revelation; or, the Salvation of All Men the Grand Thing Aimed at in the Scheme of God.  He did encounter opposition, but less than he might have earlier.  He had the advantage of publishing shortly after the end of conflict over a certain American Revolution, a time when people’s minds were naturally more preoccupied with matters other than theology.  And he was very nearly at the end of his life, with conservative forces more interested in locking horns with rising stars of the Standing Order Left.

There is little doubt Chauncy would’ve been aghast at learning his spiritual descendants and those of Murray would one day join in union, and that few modern Unitarian-Universalists can even distinguish the taste of his pudding from that of Murray.  But on another level he might have been pleased, because despite enthusiastically entering the controversies of his day when it seemed necessary, Chauncy and his liberal friends were great believers in Christian brotherhood and cooperation, including among groups with differing interpretations of Christianity.  Which is to say, he disagreed loudly and often with his opponents, but always wanted to remain in conversation and fellowship with them.  The Standing Order only disintegrated for good when the Calvinists slapped away the hand of friendship, ensuring a permanent rift between conservatives and liberals in American Protestantism, even though the issues of that day have long given way to other points of dispute.


Filed under Liberal Religious History, Unitarianism, Universalism

The Well-Stocked UU History Bookshelf

David Throop started a thread on another blog about what books Unitarian-Universalist churches ought to have on their history bookshelves.  The guidelines are that the cost shouldn’t be more than $200, there should be a clear focus on Unitarians/Universalists/Unitarian-Universalists, and the books ought to also be suitable for sale at a district event (which implies that they should be titles that are currently in print).  It’s an excellent issue to raise, and herewith are the Transient and Permanent picks for the well-stocked, modestly-priced UU history bookshelf, designed to serve both newcomers to UU history and those who wish to dig more deeply:

Bumbaugh, David E.  Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History.  (Chicago: Meadville-Lombard Press, 2000). $15

Cassara, Ernest.  Universalism in America: A Documentary History of a Liberal Faith.  (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1997). $20

Gura, Philip F.  American Transcendentalism: A History.  (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007). $15

Howe, Charles A.  The Larger Faith: A Short History of American Universalism.  (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1993). $16

Morrison-Reed, Mark D.  Black Pioneers in a White Denomination (Third Edition). (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1994). $16

Parke, David B.  The Epic of Unitarianism: Original Writings from the History of Liberal Religion.  (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1998). $16

Ross, Warren R.  The Premise and the Promise: The Story of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2001). $24

Scott, Rebecca, and Wayne B. Arnason.  We Would Be One: A History of Unitarian Universalist Youth Movements.  (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2005). $15

Tucker, Cynthia Grant.  Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, 1880-1930.  (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2000). $20

Williams, George Huntston.  American Universalism (Fourth Edition).  (Boston: Skinner House Books and the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society, 2002). $14

Wright, Conrad, ed.  A Stream of Light: A Short History of American Unitarianism.  (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2001).  $14

Wright, Conrad.  The Unitarian Controversy: Essays on American Unitarian History.  (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1994). $12

Notes: This list obviously is designed to serve American Unitarian-Universalists, as that is where Mr. Throop resides.  European UUs should substitute Charles A. Howe’s For Faith and Freedom: A Short History of Unitarianism in Europe (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1997)–$16–for Wright’s A Stream of Light;  Canadians will have to go to the used book services in search of a copy of Phillip Hewett’s Unitarians in Canada (Toronto: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1978).  The list is comprised of a dozen books for a cost of $197, or $199 for Europeans.  Happy reading!


Filed under Book Notes, Liberal Religious History, Unitarian-Universalism, Unitarianism, Universalism

Jesus’ Gospel of Inclusion: Revival 2009

Reverend Carlton Pearson, whose dramatic and moving story was featured on NPR recently (and this blog), will be the featured speaker at the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship’s eighth Revival conference, to be held in Tulsa on March 26-29.  This conference welcomes non-Christians and Christians of all types, whether or not they are Unitarian-Universalist.

The theme is Jesus’ Gospel of Inclusion: The Future of Our Churches, Our Lives, Our World.  Rev. Lillie Mae Henley, of Universalist National Memorial Church, will lead a communion service; Rev. Jonalu Johnstone, of First Unitarian Church, Oklahoma City, will lead a prayer and healing service; UUCF President Rev. Kathleen Rolenz, of West Shore UU Church, will lead a baptism service; and there will be a taize service, among others.

Other presenters include Rev. Tom Schade, Rev. Kelly Murphy-Mason, Rev. Melinda Foster, Rev. Janet Parachin, UUCF Board member Peg Bartel, Linda Ford, Rev. Nancy Claire Pittman, Rev. Ron Robinson, Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger, Barbara Schneeberg, Rev. Susan Smith, Rev. Thom Belote, Rev. Gerald Davis, and Rev. Tamara Lebak.

Hat tip to The Liberal Christian.

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Filed under Liberal Religious History, Unitarian-Universalism, Unitarianism, Universalism

New Universalist etc Periodical: The Liberal Christian

Rev. Scott Wells, a well-known figure in modern Universalist circles, has debuted a new online journal dedicated to Universalism, Unitarianism, and other liberal Christianities.  The Liberal Christian features two feature articles, an inaugrual editorial, and some interesting news notes.

In the first article, Making a Ministry, readers are treated to a description of Unitarian Ministries.  This is a very interesting development of Unitarian spirituality outside of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.  The author is Scott Wells.

In Doing More with Less, Rev. Derek Parker takes the Swedenborgian Church as a model for what UUism might do in relation to its theological studies and training.  Parker’s suggestions include downsizing the financially-at-risk Starr King School for the Ministry so that it runs more efficiently within the Graduate Theological Union of Berkeley, perhaps as a unit at the Pacific School of Religion.  This is probably the first time in a long, long time that the Swedenborgians (a small, liberal and mystical church) have been used as a model for larger denominations in North America–but that doesn’t mean their innovations should be ignored.

In Behold, I am making all things new, editor Scott Wells announces the purposes of The Liberal Christian, which he intends to publish on an approximately bi-monthly basis.  His vision is that the journal will start modestly and grow in size and quality as new contributors add their voices to the mix.  The Liberal Christian is published using a Creative Commons licesnse, an appropriately open model Rev. Wells has championed at his blog, Boy in the Bands, and elsewhere.

The news notes are admirably international, including tidbits from the United States, Great Britain, France, and Denmark.

All in all, a nice start for “another voice for Unitarians, Universalists, and kindred Christians.”

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Unitarian Presidents of the United States of America and Prime Ministers

This past Sunday a UU sermon described Thomas Jefferson as “the only Unitarian president or prime minister.”  Actually, there have been quite a few, though it’s understandable that this may not be common knowledge.  There have been five different American presidents who were Unitarians: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, and William Howard Taft.

There are also two honorable mentions worth bringing up.  Abraham Lincoln was influenced by the popular Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker and had positive interactions with the Universalists.  And Barack Obama attended Unitarian-Universalist Sunday school as a child.  Neither was/is a full-fledged Unitarian, Universalist, or Unitarian-Universalist, however.

Among the American vice presidents, John Calhoun was a Unitarian.  Of course, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Millard Fillmore also served as vice president in their time.

In Canada, there has been one Prime Minister, Sir Francis Hincks, who was a Unitarian.  Actually, Hincks was technically a Premier, since this was before final confederation, though many historians consider the premiers to be the equivalent in all but name, since they held similar responsibilities and led directly to the prime minister’s post in 1867.

In the wider world, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was raised Unitarian, though it is unclear if he considered himself Unitarian as an adult.  In New Zealand, Prime Minister Robert Stout was a Unitarian.


Filed under Liberal Religious History, Unitarian-Universalism, Unitarianism