Unitarian Universalism

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The flaming chalice is the universally recognized symbol for Unitarian Universalism.

Unitarian Universalism (UU or UUism) is a liberal religious tradition that was formed by the merger of Unitarian and Universalist groups. Its roots are in Protestantism, although Christian beliefs are no longer required for adherents to modern Unitarian Universalism and most Unitarian Universalists (UUs) do not consider themselves Christian.

Unitarian Universalism has its origin, and most of its adherents, in the United States, where its largest organization is the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee is a related nonsectarian organization which started out of an effort to smuggle Jews and other targeted groups out of Nazi Germany. The UUSC works to promote social justice and human rights around the world. Unitarian Universalist churches worldwide are represented in the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU).



Unitarian Universalism is a creedless religion. It is a syncretic religion, which respects all the major religious traditions, and religious services often draw from the various world faiths. A major difference between Unitarian Universalism and other major religions is a strong emphasis on tolerance and acceptance. Unitarian Universalist churches welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people as well as the disabled, and the church does not discriminate on the basis of skin color, national origin, or ethnicity. A large portion of its members consider themselves humanists, and many may hold Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, pagan, atheist, agnostic, pantheist, or other beliefs, or may not choose a particular theological label. This vast diversity of views is considered a strength by the UU faith, since its emphasis is on the common search for meaning among its members rather than adherence to any particular doctrine. Many UU congregations have study groups which study the doctrines and spiritual practices of Neopaganism, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and other faith traditions. One UU minister, the Reverend James Ford, has even been acknowledged as a Zen master.

While some people are raised in the UU faith, a greater number of members have come from other religious backgrounds. People join the UU faith for a variety of reasons. Unitarian Universalism often draws on adult "refugees" from other faiths. Often parents choose to bring up their children in the UU faith as a compromise if the mother and father come from different religious backgrounds. Parents who do not subscribe to a particular dogma but who want to give their children some kind of religious background are also drawn to the UU faith. Children who are brought up in the UU faith often, though not necessarily, attend Sunday religious education (RE) classes, which are somewhat akin to Sunday School in Protestant churches. RE classes may deal with moral values and the problems of growing up, as well as exploring the teachings and traditions of other religions.


Principles and Purposes

Although they do not have an official creed or dogma, Unitarian Universalist congregations operate from a set of base Principles and Purposes. The modern form of these was adopted in 1984 and is presented here, as published in church literature and on the UUA website (http://www.uua.org/aboutuua/principles.html/reg.html). Official permission was granted by the UUA to include them here:

The Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association
"We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote"
  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
"The living tradition which we share draws from many sources:"
  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
  • Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
"Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support."
The Purposes of the Unitarian Universalist Association
The Unitarian Universalist Association shall devote its resources to and exercise its corporate powers for religious, educational and humanitarian purposes. The primary purpose of the Association is to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions and implement its principles.
The Association declares and affirms its special responsibility, and that of its member societies and organizations, to promote the full participation of persons in all of its and their activities and in the full range of human endeavor without regard to race, color, sex, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, age, or national origin and without requiring adherence to any particular interpretation of religion or to any particular religious belief or creed.
Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages or to conflict with any statement of purpose, covenant, or bond of union used by any society unless such is used as a creedal test.

Unitarian Universalism is often referred to by its adherents as a living tradition, and the principles and purposes have been modified over time to reflect changes in spiritual beliefs among the membership. Most recently, the last principle (adopted in 1985), "Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part" and the last source (adopted in 1995), "Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature" were added to explicitly include members with Neopagan, Native American and other Nature-centered spiritualities. This principle is often referred to as the "seventh principle."

The lack of creed or dogma has been a cause for ridicule among some who argue that Unitarian Universalism is thus without religious content. In May 2004, Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn ruled that Unitarian Universalism was not a religion because it "does not have one system of belief," and stripped the Red River Unitarian Universalist Church in Denison, Texas of its tax-exempt status. Within weeks, Strayhorn reversed her decision.

Attitude toward sacred writings

The Unitarian Universalist attitude toward the Christian Bible and other sacred works is given in "Our Unitarian Universalist Faith: Frequently Asked Questions"

We do not, however, hold the Bible - or any other account of human experience - to be either an infallible guide or the exclusive source of truth. Much biblical material is mythical or legendary. Not that it should be discarded for that reason! Rather, it should be treasured for what it is. We believe that we should read the Bible as we read other books (or newspaper) - with imagination and a critical eye. We also respect the sacred literature of other religions. Contemporary works of science, art, and social commentary are valued as well. We hold, in the words of an old liberal formulation, that "revelation is not sealed." Unitarian Universalists aspire to truth as wide as the world-we look to find truth anywhere, universally.

Elevator speeches

Recently, the UU World magazine asked for contributions of "elevator speeches" explaining UUism. These are short speeches that could be made in the course of an elevator ride. Here are three of the speeches submitted:

In Unitarian Universalist congregations, we gather in community to support our individual spiritual journeys. We trust that openness to one another's experiences will enhance our understanding of our own links with the divine, with our history, and with one another. --Rev. Jonalu Johnstone, Oklahoma City, OK
We believe that your spiritual life is personal -- a relationship between the individual and deity, however you define it. Rather than choose your path for you, we provide a safe place for you to discover and pursue your own path. --Lyn Worthen, Salt Lake City, UT
Unitarian Universalists believe that all life is sacred, all existence is interconnected, and that justice and compassion must be the foundation of our thoughts and deeds. -- Ann Creech, Roswell, GA


See the Unitarianism article for a more detailed history of that movement

Traditionally, Unitarianism was a heretical doctrine emerging out of Christianity. The term may refer to any belief about the nature of Jesus that affirms God as a singular entity and rejects the doctrine of the Trinity. Unitarianism was rejected by orthodox Christianity at the First Council of Nicaea in 325, but it resurfaced subsequently in church history. Unitarian churches were formally established in Transylvania and Poland (the Socinians) in the sixteenth century. Michael Servetus, a Spanish proto-Unitarian, was burned at the stake in Geneva, in 1553, on the orders of John Calvin.

In the United States, the Unitarian movement began primarily in the Congregationalist parish churches of New England. These churches, which are still seen today in nearly every New England town square, trace their roots to the division of the Puritan colonies into parishes for the administration of their religious needs. After the American Revolution, they became independent and organized as individual churches, electing their own ministers.

Beginning in the late 18th century, a Unitarian movement began within some of these churches. As conflict grew between Unitarian and Trinitarian factions, Unitarians gained a key faculty position at Harvard in 1805. The dispute culminated in the foundation of the American Unitarian Association as a separate denomination in 1825.

After the schism, some of those churches remained Congregationalist, while others voted to become Unitarian. In the aftermath of their various historical circumstances, some of these churches became member congregations of the Congregationalist United Church of Christ organization, others became part of the UUA and its predecessor organizations, while a few continue to remain part of both organizations and are explicitly Christian UUA Churches.

In the 19th century, under the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson (who had been a Unitarian minister) and the other Transcendentalists, Unitarianism began its long journey from liberal Protestantism to its present syncretic form.

Universalism was another Christian heresy with a long history. It denied the doctrine of eternal damnation; instead, it proclaimed that a loving God would redeem all souls. In 1793, Universalism emerged as a particular denomination in the United States, eventually called the Universalist Church in America.

These two religious bodies always had a great deal of commonality and communication between them; they were often associated in the public eye. One observation made years ago about Unitarianism and Universalism, long before their merger, was that (paraphrase) "Universalists believe that God is too good to condemn man, while Unitarians believe that man is too good to be condemned by God."

Both Unitarianism and Universalism evolved over time into inclusive, tolerant religions, without strict dogmas. In 1961, the American Unitarian Association (AUA) merged with the Universalist Church of America (UCA), thus forming the Unitarian Universalist Association. In the same year, the Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC) formed and became an arm of the UUA to service the needs and interest of Canadian Unitarian Universalists. In 2002, the CUC split off from the UUA.

In 1995 the UUA helped establish the International_Council_of_Unitarians_and_Universalists (ICUU).

In 2000, a few Unitarian Universalists founded the American Unitarian Conference (AUC) for the purpose of promoting classical Unitarianism. At first the new organization called themselves the "American Unitarian Association", but since the UUA is the owner of that name, they eventually agreed to call themselves the "American Unitarian Conference."

Worship and ritual

As in theology, Unitarian Universalist worship and ritual are often a combination of elements derived from other faith traditions alongside original practices and symbols. Some churches might be difficult to distinguish from a liberal Protestant church, while others might not seem like a church at all to members of more traditional faiths.


The most common symbol of Unitarian Universalism is the flaming chalice, often framed by two overlapping rings that represent Unitarianism and Universalism. Other symbols include a slightly off center cross within a circle (a Universalist symbol associated with the Humiliati movement in the mid twentieth century) and a pair of open hands releasing a dove.

Worship services

Religious services are usually held on Sundays and often resemble, to a certain extent, the form and format of Protestant worship. There is usually a structured service that includes the singing of hymns and a sermon by the minister of the congregation.

However, most UU churches do not perform the traditional Christian rites, such as baptism, or communion or confirmation, though many that continue these practices are also members of the Council of Christian Churches within the Unitarian Universalist Association (CXCUUA). Other rituals replace these traditions, including Water Communion, Flower Communion, and dedications of children and babies. Teenagers often participate in "Coming of Age," a program in which they explore their own personal beliefs and spirituality. Music is not limited to traditional hymns, but often includes instrumental music or singing songs from other traditions.

Some congregations are explicitly known not as churches but as fellowships. These congregations tend to be younger and smaller than other UU societies and may favor less traditional service forms. But there are also UU congregations which have liked the term fellowship and retained it even though they have grown much larger.

One UU service that was held the week after the September 11 attack is posted online (http://members.aol.com/revpaulbeedle/20010916.html). While the circumstances of this service were not ordinary, it is an excellent example of a Unitarian Universalist service in many ways. In his sermon Rev. Paul Beedle, former minister of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Riverside (http://www.uuchurchofriverside.org), discusses the foundations of the faith, quoting a common Unitarian Universalist affirmation:

Love is the Doctrine of this Church
The quest for Truth is its Sacrament
And Service is its Prayer
To dwell together in Peace;
To seek knowledge in Freedom;
To serve humanity in fellowship
Thus do we covenant.

Another common covenant is as follows:

Love is the Spirit of this Church
And Service is its Law
To dwell together in Peace
To speak the truth in Love
And to help one another
This is our covenant.


Unitarian Universalists have often been active in liberal political activism, notably the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, the social justice movement, and the feminist movement. In the nineteenth century, Unitarians and Universalists were active in abolitionism, the women's movement, and other liberal social reform movements.

Susan B. Anthony was a Unitarian and Quaker, and was extremely influential in the women's suffrage movement. Unitarian Universalists and Quakers still share certain principles, notably that they are creedless religions with a long-standing commitment to social justice. It is therefore common to see Unitarian Universalists and Quakers working together.

UUs were and are still very involved in the fight to end racism in the US. James J. Reeb, a minister at All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C. and a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was clubbed in Selma, Alabama on March 8, 1965, and died two days later of massive head trauma. Two weeks after his death, Viola Fauver Gregg Liuzzo, a Unitarian Universalist civil rights activist, was murdered by white supremacists after her participation in the protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Reeb and approximately 20% of UU ministers marched with Martin Luther King in the three marches from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery. The Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights are best known as Bloody Sunday, although technically that refers only to September 7, the most violent day of the three.

The current head of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Rev. William Sinkford, is African-American, making Unitarian Universalism the first traditionally white religion to be headed by a member of an ethnic minority.

Most Unitarian Universalists oppose the death penalty and many are active in political movements to end it in the US. Some work for causes such as environmental protection, peace, feminism, gun control, free speech, safe and legal abortion, and animal rights. Others work to end homelessness, racism, domestic violence, homophobia, sexual assault, and HIV/AIDS. This is not to say that the politics of UUs are uniform. Like the beliefs of Unitarian Universalists, their politics are decided by individuals. But the principles of compassion, respect, justice, and diversity are the foundation of all UU politics. Politically conservative Unitarian Universalists point out that neither religious liberalism nor the Principles and Purposes of the UUA require liberal politics.

Many UU congregations have undertaken a series of organizational and practical steps to be acknowledged as a "Welcoming Congregation", a congregation which has taken specific steps to welcome and integrate gay and lesbian members. Gays and lesbians are regularly ordained as UU ministers, and services are performed recognizing committed same-sex relationships.

Many congregations are heavily involved in projects and efforts aimed at supporting environmental causes and sustainability. These are often termed "seventh principle" activities because of the seventh principle quoted above.

A comprehensive discussion of Unitarian Universalism can be found in the book Challenge of a Liberal Faith by George N. Marshall (ISBN 0933840314).


YRUU (Young Religious Unitarian Universalists) is the youth organization that exists inside the Unitarian Universalist Association. It was created in 1981 and 1982, at two conferences, Common Ground 1 & 2. Common Ground was called after the collapse of LRY (Liberal Religious Youth), the youth organization that preceded YRUU. LRY had drifted away from the Unitarian Universalist Association, and had severe internal problems that led to its collapse.

See also

External links

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