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The Unitarian Universalist Association is the modern institutional embodiment of two separate denominations that grew out of movements and faith traditions which extended back to the Christian Reformation era (14th-16th centuries CE) and well beyond. Universalist convictions are found as early as the church father Origen, who declared that all creation would ultimately be drawn back to its divine source and that nothing and no one would be ultimately and forever excluded.
In its conviction that God is ultimately and absolutely One, Unitarian thought has been a recurring heresy within the established church since the 1st century of the Christian era.
The Romanian-Transylvanian Unitarian Church, now more than four centuries old, stems originally from the skeptical and evangelical rationalist movements within the Roman Catholic Church and the openness engendered in the reformation era. Its faith and struggle, and that of Socinianism in Poland and the Low Countries, became a fertile seeding ground for the beginnings of British Unitarian thought and structure. American Unitarianism has its own primary roots in the liberal Christian movement within New England’s old Puritan establishment; a formal break with that tradition produced the American Unitarian Association in 1825.
Unitarian faith rejected Calvinist double predestination – the belief that original sin fatally flaws all human character – and the doctrine of the full and absolute personhood of each member of the Trinity. Instead, Unitarians affirmed the just and loving character of God, the God-given moral and reasoning capacity of all people, working out one’s salvation through both diligence and God’s grace, and, above all, one God.
Universalist institutional roots are in the Radical Reformation, intertwined with the histories of several Anabaptist, Separatist, and Pietist movements. The Universalists first organized separately in Britain as an offshoot of the Wesleyan Methodists. What was to become the Universalist Church of America was first gathered in September of 1793, making 1993 its 200th Anniversary. Universalism in this country found its supporters chiefly from Protestants disaffected by the bitter sectarian enthusiasms of much of American Protestantism, whose theologies condemned the great mass of humankind to eternal perdition. Many of those who could not believe that an everlasting fiery pit awaited all who lacked a proper faith and salvation experience joined the Universalists in the heady revival era of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Both the Unitarian and Universalist denominations were democratic in church polity and organizational structure. Both rejected absolute and binding statements of faith. Both affirmed freedom of personal belief within the disciplines of democratic community, as well as the freedom of each congregation to shape its own faith and worship, and choose its clergy. Both became clearly Unitarian in theology long before the merger of the two associations of churches in 1961. The Unitarian Universalist Association has grown into an international association of churches in the last few years with congregations in several countries.
Because of the openness the Unitarian Universalist movement encompasses persons of liberal Christian, deist, theist, religious humanist, and world religionist persuasions. When the first World Parliament of Religions gathered in Chicago in September of 1893, Reverend Jenkin Lloyd Jones (a Unitarian) was the secretary and general workhorse of the planning committee. Reverend Augusta Chapin (a Universalist) was the chair of the women’s religion committee. Neither denomination was intimidated or feared contamination by the vigorous non-Christian world (as did so many others) there represented. Hundreds of Universalists and Unitarians participated in the Parliament as attendees, participants, and speakers. Again in 1993 at the second Parliament, they were there to share, learn, and inform their own faith.
Our ritual is as diverse as our congregations. While most congregations worship shows its rootage in mainline Protestantism, it is no surprise to find a tea ceremony, a Jewish high holy days service, a Hindu Festival of Lights, a Muslim prayer, or a Wiccan ritual in a Unitarian Universalist Church.
Likewise, no single symbol has universal acceptance among us. For some the cross remains the central symbol, for others a grouping of world religious symbols centers worship, while for some no symbol is accepted. In recent years the flaming chalice has become the most frequently used symbol. It originates in the movement that spread from the martyrdom of Jan Hus in the 13th century. The flame of his faith, burning up from the chalice, together forming the shape of a cross. Over time, the flaming chalice has been reshaped in many forms as congregations have used and adapted it; its most common meaning today is the light of knowledge and the search for truth.
Unitarian Universalists remain a small, vigorous, and growing religious body loosely connected to Protestant Christianity. Many members, however, see themselves as separate and different from that tradition (which is why this chapter stands alone).
The UUA is a strong supporter of the International Association of Religious Freedom, an interfaith organization with seventy member groups in more than twenty-five nations, and is a member of a new coalition of Unitarian movements worldwide.