Unitarian Universalists can trace their history to Europe in the 1500s. Theologian Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva in 1553, charged by John Calvin with being a Unitarian and a heretic. Servetus did not hold to the traditional Christian view of the Trinity. Instead, he believed in the unity of God.
Several years later, in 1568, King John Sigismund, a Unitarian in Transylvania, passed an edict guaranteeing freedom of religion in his country.
Unitarian Universalists in America
By the 1700s, the Unitarian view had spread to England. Joseph Priestley fled to America and founded the first Unitarian church.
About the same time, Universalists were spreading the message of universal salvation. John Murray started the first Universalist church in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1779. Hosea Ballou carried the doctrine through New England, finally settling in Boston, Massachusetts. During his life he preached against slavery and capital punishment.
In the 19th century, Unitarian thought continued to evolve. By 1825, ministers banded together to form the American Unitarian Association.
19th Century Influences on Unitarian UniversalistsCircuit-riding preachers spread the Universalist message to the south and west, planting churches and establishing colleges. People such as Clara Barton and Horace Greeley influenced the faith toward the middle of the century.
Following the American Civil War in the 1860s, the Universalist faith fell off. Many Universalist chaplains were killed in the war, and countless churches were destroyed by the conflict.
As other denominations drifted away from emphasis on damnation, Universalism seemed less distinctive, and membership continued to drop.
Modern Unitarian Universalist History
Unitarianism was further influenced by humanist thought in the 1930s. With the Depression, the church continued to support social issues and human freedom.
Over the years, the two faiths grew closer in ethics and goals. Universalist and Unitarian denominations merged in 1961 to form Unitarian Universalism. The new religion fought for the rights of conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War and supported the civil rights movement in the American south.
Unitarian Universalists backed the women's movement in the 1970s and 1980s. By 2001, the faith had more ordained female ministers in its ranks than male ministers. Today, Unitarian Universalists advocate for full equality for bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender people. The faith also supports same-sex marriage.
Unitarian Universalism describes itself as one of the most liberal religions, embracing atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Christians, and members of all other faiths.
(Sources: uua.org, ReligiousTolerance.org, and Religions of America, edited by Leo Rosten.)