Unitarianism 101: An Introduction

Why should you never anger a Unitarian? Because you might wake up with a burning question mark on your lawn. What do you call a cross between a Jehovah’s Witness and a Unitarian? Someone who knocks on your door but doesn’t know why. What do you call an insomniac dyslexic Unitarian? Someone who stays up at night wondering if there really is a dog.
Unitarians: a hilarious punch line to nearly every joke. They’re hippies. They’re crazies. They’re deeply and basically confused. As a lifelong Unitarian, am I offended at such dismissal? Well, partly, but even I can’t deny that it’s true. We are hippies, quite possibly insane, and not only are we confused – we embrace our confusion. But, an outsider might ask, all jokes aside, what is a Unitarian?

Technically, the correct name for a Unitarian in the United States is “Unitarian-Universalist”. The two churches merged in 1961 and have been inseparable ever since. Like the siblings they sometimes resemble, however, the two sects are very different. Unitarianism has traditionally been the province of highbrow intellectuals – people like Ralph Waldo Emerson – while Universalism is historically more working-class. What do each of the sects believe? For Universalism, there is an easy answer: that there is no hell, and that no loving God would condemn us there even if there were. But for Unitarianism, the scion of the family, the symbol of the faith, the answer is considerably more complicated.

Unitarianism traces its roots to Transylvania. In 1568, a man named Francis David proclaimed what is now known as the Edict of Tolerance. In it, religious discrimination was outlawed in the land. Francis David, a Catholic-turned-Calvinist-turned-Lutheran, crafted Unitarianism on these basic principles: that God is one rather than three, that Jesus was not the son of God but a prophet, and that rationality and tolerance should be the highest values in religion. Human beings, David postulated, had not only the responsibility but also the right to save themselves. David was so convincing that King John Sigismund II of Hungary joined the nascent religion and in doing so became the first and only Unitarian ruler of a country. Unfortunately for Francis David, John Sigismund died young. David was persecuted and eventually imprisoned and martyred. David’s ideals lived on in the countryside of Transylvania, where Unitarianism is even still the dominant religion.

Quite separately and felicitously, Unitarianism emerged in Britain and the United States in the eighteenth century. Apparently unaware of the analogous faith in Eastern Europe, Harvard College served as a beacon for forward thinking in the United States. The Unitarianism of the time was even then a liberal faith, formed in reaction to the Great Awakening of the Protestant religion. Many of the Founding Fathers held great admiration for Unitarianism, most notably Thomas Jefferson, who said that he would have been a Unitarian had there been a church near his home.

From then on, Unitarianism grew steadily on the sidelines of religious thought, a bastion of liberality in an ever-changing spiritual world. During World War Two, the famous chalice symbol of Unitarianism evolved from a man who sheltered the Jews from the Nazis. In modern times, Unitarians have taken a hand in leading social justice movements, and have spearheaded the growing surge of self-identified Religious Leftists. The pedigree of Unitarianism is undeniably impressive. At times, yes, overly careful political correctness and sensitivity have led Unitarians to a sort of hand-wringing role in society – the tattletale on the playground. But it is my opinion that Unitarianism fosters within it a strong love of justice, and morality, and doing what’s right. And that? That is no joke.

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