Four Centuries in Fourteen Minutes

Four Centuries in Fourteen Minutes:
A brief history of Unitarians and Universalists

Introduction: Four Centuries in Fourteen Minutes: A brief history of Unitarians and Universalists. Actually, this might become five centuries in fifteen minutes. Or there’s the Neanderthal thing.... But I digress....

Frame One: Introduction

Buckle up, folks! We’ll be surfing some history here! I’ll share my own general sense of the shape of UU history, and we’ll fill further detail sermon by sermon. Librarian Douglas Hill has a few books to look at; I’ll be making a Bibliography available; and one could do worse than to check out Wikipedia, or my own personal favourite: the Encylopaedia Britannica. And yes, there will be a pop quiz, every day—it’s called life!

I’m following the model of the Pecha Kucha version of a PowerPoint presentation, but without the PowerPoints—I’m a bit of a Luddite. Any one here ever worked with a Pecha Kucha before? It’s twenty frames, each constrained to a set time. So, moving on....

Frame Two:

How we do history likely says more about us, than about the truth behind the story we’re trying to tell. Some histories are diachronic: they follow the details through time, like a string of pearls. Some histories are synchronic: they take a snapshot of a whole swathe of history, setting the detail that interests them within the general circumstance of that time and place. Some histories take an evolutionary line, as if we, marvelous we, are the crown of creation, and the purpose of the universe was to create wonderful us.

Me, I take the surfer model: stuff happens, interesting stuff, strings of lovely pearls, each pearl emerging from a time and place where folks thought that they were the crown of creation. Each generation reads the past from its own perspective. I call this “the red socks theory of history”: I throw the whites into a hot laundry cycle, but there’s maybe a red sock got mixed in there–the red sock of my own perspective—and so my story tends to come out a tad pinkish.

Frame Three:

I’m going to begin from the position that religion is a natural cultural creation of the human condition, born from the awareness that we are born, and we will die, and we have a lot of choices to make in between. I tend to agree with cultural anthropologist Jared Diamond, that we humans create a culture that will help us face the material realities of our lives. And religion is part of that cultural response. Diamond reckons that religion does a good thing and a bad thing, and it’s the same thing: religion lends to a society and to the people in that society a measure of stability that slows the response to change. If our best survival strategy is to endure and not change, religion helps us do that. If our best survival strategy is to swiftly accomplish radical change, religion may tend to dampen the response, and that may not be such a good thing in that setting.

Frame Four:

The Western Classical inheritance, meaning Greek and Latin literature et cetera: for this I studied Latin and Greek. I remember yet, the thrill of opening the first pages of Lucretius’ “De Rerum Natura—the Nature of Things”. By page three I was weeping, “These are my people”. Lucretius wrote in Latin about the work of his hero, Epicurus, who wrote in Greek, based on the work of his heroes, the Greek pre-Socratic philosophers. Natural philosophy: nowadays we call it science. We have a pre-Socratic philosopher in our hymnal, SLT #655, “Change alone is unchanging.”

Frame Five:

Skipping over two thousand years to marvellous us, I’m going to summarize Unitarianism and Universalism with stuff I can count on one hand. First, some characteristics can be captured in twos: two polarities. The polarities are not necessarily opposites—more like continua. So: do we characterize a religion as about the human or the holy? This world or the next? Ethics or charisma?  All of the above? UUs seem to congregate around living an ethical responsive life in human terms, in this world. Rule of threes: the Rev. Phillip Hewitt, for thirty-five years minister to the Unitarian Church of Vancouver, spoke of the UU religious tradition as a like a climbing rope, a corded link between persons, and the three strands of the cord are: Unitarianism, that the holy is one; Universalism, that all are worthy; and humanism, that a human life is worth living for its own sake, without reference to a supernatural authority. Authority can be described in fours—the four legs of Wesley’s Quadrilateral: that religious authority derives from some combination of tradition, scripture, reason or interpretation, and experience or the inner light. Traditionally, Unitarians have lifted up individual human reason as the source of religious authority, illuminated by conscience and experience. Scripture and tradition are interesting and inspiring resources, and we may begin there, but we do not end there. Revelation is not sealed. And then there are miracles, and that takes us to William Ellery Channing, but that’s another story....

Frame Six:

Are Unitarians Christians? Interesting question. Depends who you ask, and what they’ve been reading lately, and where they do coffee, and with whom. On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday I’d say yes, that is clearly the evolution of the tradition, we emerge from Rational Radical Reform Christianity in the Sixteenth Century, we are children of Calvin. I’d say that the essence of Unitarianism and Universalism opens the arms of the holy to all, whether they know Christ or not, and perceive not an elevated Christ so much as an earthly very human Jesus, teaching by his life, not his death. On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday I might say, no matter where we came from, it’s not where we are, and it’s not where we’re going--that for the last fifty years, as UU theology finds a new footing in feminism, and earth based traditions, and many UUs look first to Jewish thinkers or Buddhist meditation, how can we name ourselves as Christian in any sense. Sundays I live for the day, do what works, and brace myself for the kickback.

Anyone see the film, “The DaVinci Code”? You might recall a pivotal event in the year 325 of the Common Era, the Council of Nicea. Nicea imposed a credo on a ramshackle gathering of Christian Churches, to bolster Imperial Rome with a Church of Imperial Conformity. The Nicean model elevated Jesus the man to Christ the eternal God and limited heavenly salvation to those compliant with church teachings. The non-compliant were named heretics, from a Greek verb meaning ‘to choose’. Unitarians would likely see their spiritual forebears in the followers of Arius, who preferred a more human Jesus, and followers of Origen, who taught that even if there needed to be a hell, he didn’t see that anyone needed to be in it. So from Nicea on, those whom UUs see as spiritual ancestors were seen by orthodoxy as heretics. And then there was Pelagius and that business of grace and free will... but I digress.....

Frame Seven:

Then sometime between late antiquity and the medieval we have Bishop Ulfiias, who held to the Arian heresy, and happened to lie in the path of the Goth and Vandal invaders. Arianism was part of the mix of early Christianity. The last Arian king that I know of was Reccared, converted to Catholicism at Toledo in 587 CE. As did the Emperor Constantine at Nicea, so King Reccared in Spain availed himself of the organizational support of the Catholic Church, in order to carry out his political agendas. Here’s the thing: tolerance and reason do not necessarily support the aims of imperial power; a top down imposition of unified belief tends to trump reason and tolerance, and the personal becomes political.   And where do land and trade and money come into this? But I digress.....

Frame Eight:

The First Century did not happen until the Fourth Century. The early days of Christianity, and of Judaism, were various. Emperor Titus sacked and levelled the Second Temple in Jerusalem, Herod’s Temple. Accordingly, according to my professors at the Vancouver School of Theology, it would be inaccurate, and insulting, to think of rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity in a mother-daughter relationship. My profs would call that supercession theory, that one replaces the other, inaccurate, and insulting. My profs would read the record as both Judaism and early Christianity struggling to come to terms with the horrific impact of Roman imperial power. Judaism turned, in part, to the teachings of the rabbis, and the emergence of an ethical law for ethical and reverent living. Early Christians followed a charismatic vision of a messiah, reached outside and beyond the land and peoples of the Holy Land to the peoples of all the empire, and so a Jewish movement became the faith of many peoples in many lands. My profs would prefer to think of the Rabbinic Judaism and Christian Church that emerged from this ferment as sisters, or cousins, but not as daughter succeeding mother. The First Century, as we attempt to understand it, does not acquire its labels until the Fourth Century defined its turf and claimed its antecedents.

That’s another way to do history: planting tiny flags on people’s graves. UUs do it a lot. I’d like to claim Milton and Newton as spiritual ancestors; they’d likely be horrified, and see nothing of themselves in my twenty-first century self!

Frame Nine:

Moving right along. We already talked about Unitarianism emerging from sixteenth century Rational Radical Reform. And Wesley’s Quadrilateral: out of scripture, tradition, reason, and personal mystic experience, Unitarians went with individual reason as the source of religious authority. Calvin called this “the right to private judgement”; the corollary is that if I am to enjoy my right to private judgement, I must honour your right to private judgement also.  Calvin would have preferred that folks mostly go with Calvin’s judgement. Calvin was trying to build the city of God in Geneva, and under a lot of pressure to sustain the protestant revolution against the pope in Rome, not so far away. When Michael Servetus wandered into town on a Sunday, Calvin’s city denounced Servetus as an Anabaptist and anti-Trinitarian heretic, imprisoned Servetus, put him on trial, and burned him at the stake. And then something wonderful happened. A very brave man, under the pen name of Sebastian Castellio, wrote a pamphlet saying that it was not a good idea for Protestants to be killing one another over doctrine, and that religious tolerance of diverse belief would be a good idea. Castellio quoted as authority the writings of two young men—Marin Luther, and Jean Calvin. It was the first call for religious toleration in Western Christendom since the fall of the Roman Empire. But that’s another story for another sermon: religious toleration. Hold that thought.

Frame Ten:

A word about Universalists. In the sixteenth century, the Universalist ethic--that the holy has room for all-- was articulated by a teacher of theology at Leiden, in the Netherlands, named Arminius. Arminius was skeptical of some Calvinistic teachings around pre-destination, grace, and free will, and was accused of beating the same drums as the heretic Pelagius, centuries before. Dutch Reform theology resonated with the mighty arguments of his enemies, but Arminius endured and as far as I know he died in his bed, a free man, a respected professor of theology. His supporters sometimes called themselves Remonstrants. His arguments were taken up by a fellow called Wesley, influenced the Methodist tradition, and blossomed as the Universalist tradition.

As history unfolds, Unitarians are not necessarily Universalists, Universalists are not necessarily Unitarians. Over time, the more liberal strands of both tend to share the same stream bed. I see it this way: if the holy is one, then the holy is broad enough to have room for all; if the arms of the holy are broad enough to hold all, and in time the universalist god will call all back to god’s self, then this god is so wide as to be one, encompassing all. In short form: God is One, All shall be saved, Jesus is a teacher and a human, and may the holy spirit that was in him be in you also. In more modern language: all persons have worth and dignity, everything is connected.

Frame Eleven:

Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance. So what would that look like? Around the year sixteen hundred, we’ve gone beyond individual writers and thinkers, like Michael Servetus. We’re into congregations. This is important. Writers can write all the books they want. It’s only when someone reads the book that some new thing has actually entered the world with any impact. Preachers can preach all the sermons they want. It’s only when someone stakes awake and listens that some new thing has impact on daily life and choices. Without a congregation there is no minister. By the year sixteen hundred, the first congregations named themselves as Unitarian, inspired by the preacher Francis David—David Ferencz—in Transylvania, the land beyond the forest. (Let’s pause for a moment here, get over the Dracula thing). The people were Hungarian speaking ethnic Magyars and Szekelys. Their congregations endure to this day, in Hungary and Romania. If you look on the wall just outside the kitchen, in the foyer, you’ll see a drawing of one of their churches. Some of you may recall the partner church programme.

The great gift of these Transylvanian churches was the first legislation in Christendom for religious tolerance,the Diet of Torda, 1568, also known as the Patent of Toleration. David Ferencz might have caught the idea from an edict of the Pasha at Budapest, and the Islamic practice of religious tolerance in the Ottoman Empire. But that’s another story....  Diet of Torda, 1568, the Patent of Toleration.  Reformation Unitarianism may be characterized by three words: Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance.

Frame Twelve:

Renaissance Humanists. To the scholars of the Renaissance, emerging out of Italy, fuelled by Greek manuscripts funnelled out of Constantiople when the city fell to the Ottomans, then there was a plague, so lots of rags and lots of paper, then the invention of the printing press sent the word into the world big time.... Where was I? Renaissance humanists; by humanist they meant the study of the humanities—what we’d expect to study at a liberal arts college. Theology was queen of the sciences, but the Renaissance Humanists fell greedily upon the classic Greek and Latin texts. And they declared that the things of the divine—divinity—were no doubt worthy of study; but also worthy of study were the humanities—the concerns of human life, valuable for their own sake, interesting for their own sake. And by this they meant the seven liberal arts: the Trivium—three roads: grammar, rhetoric, and logic; the Quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The Renaissance Humanists declared that these areas of study were valuable for their own sake, and not just as the path towards study of  Theologica, no longer queen of the sciences.

Frame Thirteen:

Transylvania. Hungary. Ottoman Empire. King John Sigismund. His mother, Isabella, who first enacted the first edict of toleration, as Queen Regent. Court Preacher, David Ferencz. The first congregations to take the name of Unitarian. We did that.

Frame Fourteen:

Meanwhile, back in the Polish-Lithuanian Confederacy, the Reform Church of the Minor Brethren imported an Italian Humanities scholar and theologian named Socinus, and established a model city in Racovia and the Racovian Catechism. We like to claim these folks as Unitarians on the basis of their understanding of the nature of Jesus. They did reasonably well until the Roman Catholic counter-reformation sent the Jesuits to roust them out. The Jesuits scattered us root, stock and branch, and reclaimed Poland for the Catholic Church. I take it as a great compliment that they sent the Jesuits against us. They cared enough to send the very best!

So the Polish Socinian Unitarians were scattered to the four winds. Some found refuge in Transylvania. Some went west, to Germany, Netherlands, England, the New World… but that’s another story.

Frame Fifteen:

New England. We move into the Seventeenth Century.  Governor Frontenac in Quebec City holds French Canada for the king in Paris. The English Civil War pits Cavaliers against Roundheads. New England’s Atlantic shore makes room for refugees from varieties of religious persecution. Eventually the range of opinion convinces folks that freedom for one means freedom for all, and encourages the separation of church and state. Pilgrims and Puritans populate Massachusetts and create the Church of the Standing Order, with congregational polity.

Frame Sixteen:

Seventeenth Century England allows sufficient toleration that non-conformist congregations survive the Restoration of King Charles the Second and the return of his bishops. Two of the thirty-nine articles of faith of the Church of England were supposed to have been removed as part of the deal, but the bishops threw a hissy fit and the offending articles were not removed. Of approximately five thousand serving ministers, two thousand choked on the articles in question, and would not conform. This was the beginning of non-conformist faith in Britain, not just Unitarians by also Baptists, general and particular. I could say more, but let’s save that for later sometime.   John Milton and Isaac Newton come into this somewhere....

Frame Seventeen:

We’re into the nineteenth century.

Three Sermons in New England established North American Unitarianism as we know it. William Ellery Channing’s Baltimore Sermon of 1819 claimed the name of Unitarian for liberal Congregationalists. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address of 1838 scorched traditional doctrine with a Transcendentalist mind on fire. Theodore Parker’s 1841 sermon invited a larger view of religion:the Transient and the Permanent.

And all the while, Hosea Ballou preached God’s unconditional love and a doctrine of universal salvation. Universalists tended to be country folks, working class, farmers, self-taught, and generous. Universalists worked for the abolition of slavery and ordained women preachers and preachers of colour long before Unitarians. Unitarians tended to be urban, mercantile, and college taught—Harvard men. The differences between Unitarians and Universalists were more of class than of doctrine. Hosea Ballou and William Ellery Channing were the leading preachers of their denominations, working and living in Boston, breathing the same city air for decades, and yet there is no record that they ever met.

Frame Eighteen:

Canada. Irish Presbyterians, English Non-conformists, Icelandic Lutherans, descendants of French Huguenots; Unitarian congregations in some bigger cities, Universalist congregations in some smaller towns; Canadian Unitarianism and Universalism grows piecemeal, with a big boost from England, Ireland, and Boston. See Phillip Hewitt’s history of Unitarians and Universalists in Canada.

Frame Nineteen:

Who are my people? I could go on and on speaking of people who have articulated their UU values through lives lived, whether they were active for a life time, or just passing through.  But I won’t.  Suffice to say that when my father heard Dr. Brock Chisolm, head of the World Health Organization, interviewed on CBC Radio saying “Don’t lie to your children, not even about Santa Claus”, Dad said, Whatever that man is, that’s what I want to be!” Dr. Brock Chisolm was a Unitarian: we became Unitarians. I could mention that novelist Alice Munro was my sister’s Sunday School teacher, but that would be boasting. Read Embers.....

Frame Twenty: In conclusion—

I’ll close with some dates:

May 1825. On both sides of the Atlantic, Unitarian congregations create denominational institutions.

1961. Unitarians and Universalists in North America finally figure out that they’re two sides of the same coin. The youth merge first. The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations is born. And at the same time the Canadian UU congregations recognized there are Canadian particularities, and the Canadian Unitarian Council is born. CUC separates from the UUA, an amicable divorce with continuing collaboration, forty years later, at the turn of the century.

Internationally, Unitarians and Universalists can be found around the world, some springing into being through the witness of the internet. Unitarians have been in India and around the Commonwealth since colonial days. Once I met a Unitarian from Tierra del Fuego. We share this world faith through the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists, served as president by the Rev. Brian Kiely of the Unitarian Church in Edmonton. We share this world respect for free faith within the International Association of Religious Freedom.

We are the inheritors of a great tradition—freedom, reason and tolerance, reverence and respect, and work as love made visible.

We do not have to think alike to love alike.

May it be so.


Annotated Bibliography

John Buehrens and Forrest Church, “A Chosen Faith”.

William Ellery Channing left an influential collection of sermons, called “Works”; his widely read “Baltimore Sermon” of 1819 established Unitarianism as the articulation of liberal congregationalism in New England. Channing spent much time puzzling about miracles, real or metaphorical, and the implications thereof. Channing would place religious authority with the individual, derived from “reason, conscience, and experience”, reason being the interpreter of revelation, conscience meaning in those days more intellect that we might think today, experience meaning personal experience of the holy, more like mysticism than life history.

Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone,  “Out of the Flames”

Jared Diamond, “Guns, Germs, and Steel”.

Phillip Hewitt, a pamphlet unfolding the UU tradition in terms of a three-stranded climbers’ rope, the three strands being Unitarianism, Universalism, and Humanism. Also the major history of Unitarians and Universalists in Canada.

J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, “The Barbarian West: 400-1000”, 1967, 1985.

Wikipedia: see articles on Arius,  Arminius,  Edict of Torda,  Isabella Jagiellon,  John Sigismund Zapolya,  Liberal Arts Education,  Pelagius,  Socinianism, Unitarian Church of Transylvania, etc.

Harvard Square Library, online at

George Hunston Williams, historian, characterizes Unitarianism as “rational radical reform”, in the Anabaptist tradition.

Closing Words
SLT #655

“Change Alone Is Unchanging”

Whosoever wishes to know about the world
must learn about it   in its particular details.

Knowledge is not intelligence.

In searching for the truth   be ready for the unexpected,

Change along is unchanging.

The same road goes both up and down.

The beginning of a circle is also its end.

Not I, but the world says it: all is one.

And yet everything comes in season.

-Heraklietos of Ephesos


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