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Sunday, November 16, 2003

Unitarian Universalism: In search of a definition

Matthew Gatheringwater, in A plea and a promise, writes:

When planning to study at Meadville Lombard, I imagined that I was somehow getting closer to the heart of Unitarian Universalism. I saved the unanswered questions and doubts I discovered in my home congregation and brought them with me to Chicago, where I fully expected I would meet with wise professors and experienced ministers at whose feet I could sit and learn. The reality is that most of the people I've hoped would help me understand Unitarian Universalism appear to share much of my own confusion and ambivalence. Even this disappointment, however, is better than the apprehension I feel at meeting a few who seem convinced their personal vision of UUism (which I believe would be almost unrecognizable to the Unitarians whose writings first persuaded me to this religious tradition) is supposed to be the defining standard of faith.

I wish I had the time and energy now to come up with something fresh to say in response, but since I'm rushing a magazine toward its deadline, I'll instead dig up something I've been meaning to put on-line for more than a year. The essay that follows — "Unitarian Universalism in the Reference Room" — reviews the descriptions of "Unitarian Universalism" from academic reference works on religious movements. It's an omnium gatherum of definitions, which I found helpful as I tried to refine my own definition. I wrote the essay for the Autumn 1998 issue of Aspire, the journal of the Unitarian Universalist Ministerial Students and Candidates Network, which I was editing at the time.

Unitarian Universalism in the Reference Room

What is Unitarian Universalism? Those of us preparing to meet the UUA's Ministerial Fellowship Committee have composed various pithy responses (suitable for elevator rides), but I wondered what contemporary academic reference books on religion have to say about Unitarian Universalism. Here is a sample of contemporary scholarly descriptions of Unitarian Universalism from assorted general reference works on religion, selected from the Reference Room at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library. Do you recognize the tradition they attempt to describe?

Scholars wrestle, just as we do, with attempts to define — or at least to describe — a liberal tradition that struggles to be clear about its own definition. Perhaps in seeing how difficult it has become to describe Unitarian Universalism we may commit ourselves to the theological, historical, and ecclesiastical work of clarification — for ourselves, for our congregations, and for the future of liberal religion. Do we really share a living tradition? As critics accuse us of becoming a religious smorgasbord or salad bar, or of worshiping the “pale negations” of religion, how shall we refine and grow deeper in a liberal faith that is worth a life’s commitment? I will not present answers to these questions in this review, but I will share with you the attempts of religious scholars to understand us.

The 1981 Perennial Dictionary of World Religions classifies the Unitarian Universalist Association as a development within Christianity, but observes that the “new denomination, active in liberal causes, continues its predecessors’ [the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America’s] commitment to live in the tension between humanistic liberalism and Christianity” (776). The editors see this commitment expressed in the purpose of the nascent UUA, “to cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man.” (The language of this statement of purpose was replaced in 1985 by the current “Principles and Purposes.”) The dictionary traces the tension in Unitarian Universalism to the Transcendentalist Controversy of the late 1830s. Living in the tension between humanistic liberalism and Christianity sounds about right to me, but other reference works prefer to situate us on one side or the other of that tension.

According to the more recent Encyclopedia of American Religions, fifth edition (1996), the UUA “represents the coming together of the two oldest and most conservative segments of the liberal tradition” — a comment that is sure to startle a few of us, at least until we come to the next sentence that notes that the UUA “is the only [liberal] body that affirms its base within the Judeo-Christian heritage” (555). The all-inclusive encyclopedia, with its descriptions of more than 2,100 religious bodies, classifies Unitarian Universalism with other “groups that have challenged the orthodox Christian dominance of Western religious life” (119). This liberal tradition of challenging orthodoxy encompasses unitarianism, universalism, and “infidelism” — a delicious term for the varieties of deism, rationalism, humanism, atheism, and other forms of free thought. The Encyclopedia of Unbelief (1985), a two-volume compendium of free thought from Prometheus Books, also locates Unitarian Universalism with the infidels, devoting seven double-columned pages to Unitarianism and eight to Universalism in well-written articles by Paul Beattie, former editor of Religious Humanism.

While the Encyclopedia of American Religions considers the UUA the most conservative of the liberal bodies, the Encyclopedia of American Religious History (1996) identifies the UUA as “a denomination that represents the extreme theological left wing of Protestantism in the United States” (684). These two assessments are not necessarily opposed, of course. Unitarian Universalism has historically embodied a protest against ecclesiastical and political coercion, continuing a long Protestant tradition, preferring freedom of conscience in religion even when that freedom seems to have pushed our Protestantism beyond conventional Christianity. As representatives of the “extreme theological left wing” of American Protestantism, Unitarian Universalism is only conservative among liberal groups in the sense that we try not to treat organized religion as the inevitable enemy of freedom. I once overheard a college student recommend “Universalism” to a friend on the basis that it is the “least organized religion.” Maybe so. Ours has been a history of religious freedom within free churches. Do we represent a tradition of religious freedom within the Christian Church as well?

A Handbook of Living Religions, published by Penguin Books (1984), takes a third approach. Rather than locating us among the quasi-religious free thought groups or at the left flank of mainline Protestantism, A Handbook of Living Religions treats Unitarian Universalism as one of several marginal traditions related to Christianity: “There are movements which are only intelligible in relation to Christian faith, but which do not clearly have the marks of historic Christianity” (112). Among these movements are “post-Christian Western denominations,” including the Unitarian Universalists. Recognizing our unique status as partway-in, partway-out of the Christian tradition, the editors write: “In Unitarianism two separate strands are noticeable: one, which is biblicist, resisting dogmatic statements which seem to go beyond biblical warrant, has modified confessions about Christ, but kept contact with the main Christian tradition [such as Transylvanian Unitarianism and some British and American Unitarian churches]; the other is rationalist, endeavoring to construct a universal ‘rational’ religion in which the miraculous plays no part” (113). ( The other “post-Christian Western denominations” in the Penguin Handbook are the Christian Scientists, the Mormons, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, each distinguished from historic Christianity by its modern revelations.)

Another British book, Contemporary Religions: A World Guide (1992), takes an Anglocentric view of things and emphasizes the influence of the British Unitarian James Martineau on Unitarianism’s shift from biblical revelation to rationalism and science in the late 19th century. The book observes that today’s Unitarian churches experience “tension between those who would regard themselves as Christians (although rejected by mainline Christianity) and those who reject most Christian dogma” (361).

An older Catholic reference work, the Corpus Dictionary of Western Churches (1970), takes an expressly ecumenical view prompted by Vatican II, and includes careful descriptions of the Christian churches in all their diversity. I am particularly fond of this section of the entry on the Unitarian Universalist Association: “The merged denomination continues significant traditions that were held in common by the parent movements, such as congregational polity; a programmatic creedless-ness; strong social and ethical concerns; the cherishing of freedom of religious belief in a disciplined search for truth; a deep respect for human dignity (expressed in an early rejection of the doctrine of total depravity); a strictly humanitarian Christology; acceptance of theists, religious humanists, and agnostics in religious fellowship; and a striving for a worldwide, interfaith, religious community. The creedless character of the denomination distinguishes it from many other religious movements” (770). A separate entry on Unitarianism concentrates on Christian dimensions of Unitarian belief (the affirmation of one God and the denial of the doctrines of the trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the total depravity of humankind), but also notes the wider variety of theological positions within Unitarianism in the 20th century.

A Unitarian Universalist minister, W. Bradford Greeley, briefly describes our movement for An Encyclopedia of Religions in the United States (1992): “Unitarian Universalism is a faith whose focus is this-worldly. It offers the strength and solace of community for those who find the answers to the mysteries and responsibilities of life beyond the answers of dogma and revelation” (320). Intended for a popular audience, this book emphasizes current practice over historical development, and engages in name-dropping in place of historical accuracy. Henry David Thoreau, for instance, can only be considered a “Unitarian” in the loosest sense: he was baptized as a child in the First Parish in Concord in the early days of the Unitarian controversy, but wanted nothing to do with the church in adulthood. Thoreau and Thomas Jefferson are mentioned in Greeley’s entry, but Channing and Ballou are not.

Another book intended as a popular guide to America’s organized religions, Frank S. Mead’s helpful Handbook of Denominations in the United States (in a new tenth edition, 1995, by Samuel S. Hill) belongs in every minister’s library. A largely accurate introduction to Unitarian and Universalist origins and current tendencies includes a few questionable claims: “Neither body [in the merged denomination] seems to have lost any of its original ideology, theology, or purpose” because the UUA imposes no “particular interpretation of religion” on its member congregations (287). I am sure the writer is wrong on this point. The Handbook concludes with the 1985 Principles and a description of the UUA’s organizational structure. Unlike An Encyclopedia of Religions in the United States, the Handbook of Denominations concentrates on denominational accomplishments (such as charitable organizations and colleges) rather than on ancestor-worship, but does not mention the Transcendentalists at all.

A New Dictionary of Religions (1995) describes Unitarians as “Christians (although some deny them the title)” characterized by their theological heresies in defense of the unity of God. The entry concludes with the terse observation that “modern Unitarianism is diverse and difficult to classify, except as ‘liberal’ religion” (540). A fascinating separate entry on Humanism distinguishes between “liberal or ethical humanism” and “scientific humanism,” but does not mention the American movement of “religious humanism.” It does say, however, that “in the 19th century humanism took various church-like forms, which gave it the character of a secular religion. These do not flourish in the same way today” (225-226). The failure of religious humanism to take on significant and enduring institutional form outside of Ethical Culture societies and Unitarian Universalist congregations is worth sustained reflection, but it is a pity that the editors also missed the very real success of religious humanism within Unitarian Universalism.

A brief entry in The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (1997) describes Unitarianism as “a religious movement connected with Christianity,” which, in the Unitarian Universalist Association, “is characterized by an emphasis on members seeking truth out of human experience, not out of allegiance to creeds or doctrines” (1005). Unlike many books, which tend not to include separate entries on Universalism, the Oxford dictionary includes very brief mention of denominational Universalism in the United States.

Albert Shulman’s The Religious Heritage of America (1981) would have been unhelpful even when it was first published. Full of errors, the entry includes a time line that mistakenly describes the merger of the General Conference of Universalists with the American Unitarian Association in 1925. (Can you spot the error?) In the body of the entry, Meadville, Pennsylvania, is said to harbor a Unitarian seminary — fifty years after the school moved to Chicago. More amusing, however, is the contention that since 1825, “the history of the movement has been uneventful” (62). (!) The writer uses the main points of Channing’s Baltimore Sermon to describe Unitarian doctrine (61-62), but then says that Unitarians have come to “accept the best of the world’s common heritage, whether stemming from religion, culture, or secularism” (63). I wonder how Channing would reconcile such a statement. The sections of the entry on Universalism are similarly confused.

We have also baffled more careful readers. J. Gordon Melton’s Religious Bodies in the United States: A Directory (1992) admits in the introduction that several groups defy simple classification. The directory includes sections on each of the world religions, on regional religions like Shintoism, Sikhism, and Taoism, and on three groups that include religious movements with connections to Christianity. “There are a number of religious groups, especially the Church of Christ, Scientist, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints [sic], the Unitarian Universalist Association, and a variety of New Age Christian groups, which affirm a relation to the Christian community, but do so in such a way that the larger Christian church groups have refused them recognition” (x). The Christian Scientists and New Age Christians, such as the Unity School, are placed with the “Metaphysical — Ancient Wisdom — New Age” groups; the Latter-day Saints have their own section; and the Unitarian Universalists end up in the Unclassified section along with small immigrant faith groups like the Zoroastrians and deliberately marginal groups like the Satanists. Melton, who is a leading scholarly observer of new religious movements and cults in America, is also the editor of the Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America (rev. ed., 1992), which comments on the “significant support within the highly intellectual Unitarian-Universalist community” of neo-pagans through the formal recognition of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (330). I looked for mention of Unitarian Universalism in other reference works on paganism, witchcraft, and new age religion, but did not find any.

The Dictionary of Christianity in America (1990) presents the most thorough and accurate presentation of Unitarianism and Universalism of any single-volume work in my visit to the Reference Room. MFC study groups, take note! With separate entries on the Unitarian Controversy (written by David Robinson), the Unitarian Universalist Association (which includes the general discussion of Unitarianism), and Universalism, the dictionary describes our parent movements as “small denominations, primarily of New England origins, that exemplified two separate courses of the development of religious liberalism in America” (1196). The amount of detail, arranged in a clear historical narrative, is remarkable. Contemporary Unitarian Universalism is described in this way: “The UUA is vocal in its commitment to progressive social issues, including environmentalism, feminism and gay rights. It imposes no creedal tests, and recognizes its roots both in the Judeo-Christian tradition as well as in humanistic sources” (1197).

Peter W. Williams, who wrote the essay on the UUA for the Dictionary of Christianity in America, presents a lengthy must-read in the scholarly, multi-volume Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience: Studies of Traditions and Movements (1988). Discussion of Unitarians and Universalists appears in many places in the encyclopedia, with fifteen double-columned pages specifically on Unitarianism and Universalism. In a passage on the importance of social action to UU identity, Williams writes: “Since theology and liturgy do not play a central unifying role — UUs continue to resist any consensus on theistic or humanistic orientation — emphasis is rather on a ‘shared community of values,’ which involves both questions of personal growth and the achievement of a just and whole society” (592).

How shall we assess these academic descriptions of Unitarian Universalism? Many UUs certainly do not agree with the scholars’ descriptions. While working for the UUA’s Office of Public Information [in the summer of 1998], I learned that the UUA receives occasional complaints about published articles on Unitarian Universalism, most recently regarding CD-ROM encyclopedia entries. Invariably, the complaints focus on the articles’ emphasis on Unitarianism as a form of Christianity — even when the articles note that modern Unitarianism has departed in large part from a Christian identity. As we have seen, scholars struggle to explain the relationship of Unitarian Universalism to Christianity. One need not agree with the Universalist minister who has said that the UUA is the only Christian denomination in history self-consciously to vote itself out of Christianity, but as a minister and a committed Unitarian Universalist one must confront the fact that our movement has its origins — theologically, institutionally, socially, and devotionally — in Protestant Christianity. But how should a reference work — or a congregation, for that matter — explain the relationship of modern Unitarian Universalism to its complex history? How do we describe, in vital terms, the evolution of two liberal Christian denominations into a post-Christian or semi-Christian alliance of autonomous churches and religious liberals in which some congregations continue to celebrate a liberal Christianity, others a universal or natural theism, and others an entirely humanistic religious perspective? We must find ways to talk about the emergence of contemporary liberal religion that will honor our past rather than dismissing it. We must find ways to make this conversation vital to the people who are the life of our congregations. William Ellery Channing is not simply a venerable name from our past, nor, for that matter, is Jesus. For all the developments that do distinguish Unitarian Universalism today from the Christian tradition (however broadly understood), we also stand in continuity with it. We do a disservice to each other and to the liberal tradition when we fail to acknowledge this continuity.

We know intuitively what Unitarian Universalism is when we recognize its significance in our lives. Our tradition gives us resources for confronting the conditions of our own time as religious people. Our tradition helps us live richly and meaningfully with each other. Our tradition opens us to a reality larger than ourselves. We can and must talk about why this is. We must, in other words, say something about how our tradition continues to enrich and enable our faith. When you define Unitarian Universalism, does your definition honor the Unitarian and Universalist past as well as the contemporary Zeitgeist of our movement? How do you define Unitarian Universalism today?

Works reviewed

Contemporary Religions: A World Guide. Longman Group, 1992.
Corpus Dictionary of Western Churches. Ed by T.C. O’Brien. Corpus, 1970.
Dictionary of Christianity in America. Ed by D.G. Reid et al. InterVarsity, 1990.
Encyclopedia of American Religions. Ed by J.G. Melton. 5th ed. Gale, 1996.
Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience: Studies of Traditions and Movements. Ed by C.H. Lippy and P.W. Williams. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988.
The Encyclopedia of American Religious History. Facts on File, 1996.
An Encyclopedia of Religions in the United States: One Hundred Religious Groups Speak for Themselves. Ed by W.B. Williamson. Crossroad, 1992.
The Encyclopedia of Unbelief. 2 vols. Ed by G. Stein. Prometheus, 1985.
A Handbook of Living Religions. Ed by J.R. Hinnells. Penguin, 1984.
Mead, Frank S. Handbook of Denominations in the United States. 10th ed. Rev by S.S. Hill. Abingdon, 1995.
Melton, J.G. Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America. Rev ed. Garland, 1992.
———. Religious Bodies in the United States: A Directory. Garland, 1992.
A New Dictionary of Religions. Ed by J.R. Hinnells. Penguin, 1995.
The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. Ed by J. Bowker. Oxford, 1997.
Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. Ed by K. Crim. Harper & Row, 1989.
Shulman, A.M. The Religious Heritage of America. A.S. Barnes & Company, 1981.

Copyright 1998 by Christopher L. Walton. The proper citation for this article is Chris Walton, "Unitarian Universalism in the Reference Room," Aspire 3:1 (Autumn 1998): 8-15.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 16 November 2003 at 11:30 AM

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November 16, 2003 06:43 PM | Permalink for this comment

I like Carl Scovill's definition (even tho' he means it pejoratively): federation of spiritualities.


November 17, 2003 09:45 AM | Permalink for this comment

I believe the key place where Carl Scovel made this point most thoroughly is in his essay, "Beyond Spirituality," in the Unitarian Universalist Christian 52 (1996/97). That volume ought to be in every UU minister and theologian's library.

Chris A.:

December 7, 2003 07:53 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for this. I'm an Episcopalian out here in Seattle. A woman in our diocese wrote a book called Stumbling Towards God in which she talks about splitting her time between the Episcopalians and the Unitarians. I've been trying to find out more about them ever since, and this is quite helpful, so thanks.


December 7, 2003 10:59 PM | Permalink for this comment

Stumbling Towards God is a good spiritual memoir. I really enjoyed it. (My wife is Episcopalian.)


January 1, 2004 10:08 PM | Permalink for this comment

I dislike the thought that UUs are really just Christians taking a little more liberal step towards... whatever. I do like the fact that we're in the Book of Cults kept by the Catholic church though. It encourages me that the Christians aren't waiting with open arms to welcome us as another branch of their religion. Think about it: Micheal Servetus was burned by Calvin.

Len Wheeler:

April 13, 2004 10:04 AM | Permalink for this comment

As a very long-term (since 1974) Unitarian, I find it consoling that it is so difficult to define us. After all, we are a living, changing body of people. We are a group in process, and never looking for THE answer, but for the next question. Most of us believe that we look for the consequences in advance of our decisions and actions. These consequences, I like to think, are to affect the most with positive results. Most of us believe that science comes closer to having answers than religions, but we accept differences, which makes us tolerant and humane.
This is just one more definition. I don't want us too easily defined because then we have become stale. Len Wheeler

Emil Wisekal:

September 21, 2004 10:34 PM | Permalink for this comment

What I find most compelling about Unitarian Universalists is that they are not afraid to say "I don't know". That the question can even be "What does a Unitarian Universalist believe?" makes them unique.

A practicing UU for about 12 years, I find the hardest thing to do is Profess My Beliefs. I use the 7 UU principles to help. I can more easily define my beliefs by stating what I do NOT believe. That's "infidel shorthand" - anyone in an outsider group knows well what they are not part of.

I like the fact that I can define myself by my actions. I am a positive message, and I decided to go this route: I chose it and I have the responsibility as a UU to follow through.


February 27, 2005 04:34 PM | Permalink for this comment

Dan Harper identifies another good reference work's categorization of Unitarian Universalism: Christopher Partridge's New Religions, A Guide: New Religious Movements, Sects, and Alternative Spiritualities.


May 19, 2006 05:58 PM | Permalink for this comment

I would like to invite everyone who is interested in this conversation to consider attending or supporting the upcoming Theological Symposium that will take place next July in Kolozsvar-Cluj (Transylvania). John Buehrens and Paul Rasor are among the main speakers. Full details at the ICUU website,

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