Unitarian Universalism

This article is about the liberal religious movement. For the Christian theology that includes a central belief in the unitary nature of God, see Unitarianism. For the Christian theology that includes a central belief in universal reconciliation, see Christian Universalism. For other uses of Unitarianism, see Unitarian (disambiguation). For Universalism as a general philosophy, see Universalism.
Unitarian Universalism

An early version of the flaming chalice, the most widely used symbol of UUism.
Abbreviation UUism, Unitarianism
Type Liberal religion
Scripture All sources admissible, none required. Members are free to observe their own personally-favored literature.
Founder Members of American Unitarian Association and Universalist Church of America via consolidation
Origin May 1961
Congregations 1,070 worldwide
Number of followers 221,000 members of Unitarian Universalist Association congregations; 800,000 identify as Unitarian Universalist[1]

Unitarian Universalism[2][3][4] is a liberal religion characterized by a "free and responsible search for truth and meaning".[5][6] The Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church does not have a creed. Instead UUs are unified by their shared search for spiritual growth. As such, UU congregations include many agnostics, theists, and atheists among their membership. The roots of UU are in liberal Christianity, specifically Unitarianism and Universalism. Unitarian Universalists state that from these traditions come a deep regard for intellectual freedom and inclusive love. Congregations and members seek inspiration and derive insight from all major world religions.[7]

The beliefs of individual Unitarian Universalists range widely, including atheism, agnosticism, pantheism, deism, Judaism, Islam,[8] Christianity, neopaganism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Humanism, and many more.[9]

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) was formed in 1961, a consolidation of the American Unitarian Association, established in 1825, and the Universalist Church of America,[10] established in 1793. It is headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, and serves churches mostly in the United States. A group of thirty Philippine congregations is represented as a sole member within the UUA. The Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC) became an independent body in 2002.[11] The UUA and CUC are, in turn, two of the seventeen members of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists.[12]


Unitarian Universalism was formed from the consolidation in 1961 of two historically Christian denominations, the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association,[10] both based in the United States; the new organization formed in this merger was the Unitarian Universalist Association.[13] At the time of the North American consolidation, Unitarians and Universalists had expanded beyond their roots in liberal Christian theology. Today they draw from a variety of religious traditions. Individuals may or may not self-identify as Christians or subscribe to Christian beliefs.[14] Unitarian Universalist congregations and fellowships tend to retain some Christian traditions, such as Sunday worship with a sermon and the singing of hymns. The extent to which the elements of any particular faith tradition are incorporated into personal spiritual practice is a matter of individual choice for congregants, in keeping with a creedless, non-dogmatic approach to spirituality and faith development.[15]

New England Unitarians evolved from the Pilgrim fathers' Congregational Christianity, which was originally based on a literal reading of the Bible. Liberalizing Unitarians rejected the Trinitarian belief in the tri-personal godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost/Spirit. Instead, they asserted a unitary notion of God. In addition, they rejected the doctrine of original sin, moving away from the Calvinism of the Congregationalists.[16]

New England Universalists rejected the Puritan forefathers' emphasis on the select few, the Elect, who were reportedly saved from eternal damnation by a just God. Instead Universalists asserted that all people will eventually be reconciled with God.[16] Universalists rejected the hellfire and damnation of the evangelical preachers, who tried to revive the fundamentalist Christianity of the early Pilgrim fathers.[17]


Universalists claim a long history, beginning with Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, though some modern scholars question whether either of these church fathers taught the defining doctrine of Universalism (universal salvation).[18][19][20]

This core doctrine asserts that through Christ every single human soul shall be saved, leading to the "restitution of all things" (apocatastasis). In 1793, Universalism emerged as a particular denomination of Christianity in the United States, eventually called the Universalist Church of America.[21] Early American advocates of Universal Salvation such as Elhanan Winchester, Hosea Ballou and John Murray taught that all souls would achieve salvation, sometimes after a period resembling purgatory.[22] Christian Universalism denies the doctrine of everlasting damnation, and proclaims belief in an entirely loving God who will ultimately redeem all human beings.[23][24]


Main article: Unitarianism

Historically, various forms of Nontrinitarianism have appeared within Christianity. The term may refer to any belief about the nature of Jesus Christ that affirms God as a singular entity and rejects the doctrine of the Trinity, as affirmed by the mainstream Christianity: a consensus of Christian bishops at the First Council of Nicaea in 325. Nontrinitarianism was especially prevalent during the theological turmoils of the Protestant Reformation. A Spanish physician, Michael Servetus, studied the Bible and concluded that the concept of the Trinity, as traditionally conceived, was not biblical. His books On the Errors of the Trinity and Christianismi Restitutio caused much uproar. Servetus was eventually arrested, convicted of heresy, and burned at the stake in Geneva in 1553 under the order of John Calvin.[25]

The term Unitarian entered the English language via Henry Hedworth, who applied it to the teachings of Laelio Sozzini and the Polish Socinians. Unitarian churches were formally established in Transylvania and Poland (by the Socinians) in the second half of the 16th Century.[26] There, the first doctrines of religious freedom in Europe were established under the jurisdiction of John Sigismund, Transylvania's first Unitarian king. The early Unitarian church not only rejected the Trinity, but also the pre-existence of Christ as well as, in many cases, predestination and original sin as put forward by Augustine of Hippo, and the substitutionary atonement of Christ developed by Anselm of Canterbury and John Calvin. There were several different forms of Christology in the beginnings of the Unitarian movement; ultimately, the dominant Christology became psilanthropism: that Jesus was a man, but one with a unique relationship to God.


Influenced by the teachings of the Polish Socinians, Samuel Clarke (1675–1729) revised the Book of Common Prayer, removing the Trinitarian Nicene Creed and references to Jesus as God.[27] Theophilus Lindsey also revised the Book of Common Prayer to allow a more Unitarian interpretation. Neither cleric was charged under the Blasphemy Act 1697 that made it an offense for any person, educated in or having made profession of the Christian religion, by writing, preaching, teaching or advised speaking, to deny the Holy Trinity. The Act of Toleration (1689) gave relief to English Dissenters, but excluded Unitarians. The efforts of Clarke and Lindsey met with substantial criticism from the more conservative clergy and laity of the Church of England. In response, in 1774, Lindsey applied for registration of the Essex House as a Dissenting place of worship with the assistance of barrister Mr. John Lee. On the Sunday following the registration—April 17, 1774—the first true Unitarian congregation discreetly convened in the provisional Essex Street Chapel. In attendance were Mr. Lee, Joseph Priestley and the agent of the Massachusetts Colony, Mr. Benjamin Franklin.[28] Priestley also founded a reform congregation, but, after his home was burned down in the Priestley Riots, fled with his wife to America, where he became a leading figure in the founding of the church on American soil.[29]

Once laity and clergy relaxed their vehement opposition to the Doctrine of the Trinity Act 1813, which finally allowed for protections of dissenting religions, the British and Foreign Unitarian Association was founded in 1825. It has its headquarters in Essex Hall, successor to Lindsey's Essex House.

Unitarian congregations in Britain today meet under the auspices of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. Two that have been significant in national life are the Cross Street Chapel in Manchester and Newington Green Unitarian Church in north London.

United States

In the United States, the Unitarian movement began primarily in the Congregational parish churches of New England, which were part of the state church of Massachusetts.[30] These churches, whose buildings may still be seen today in many New England town squares, trace their roots to the division of the Puritan colonies into parishes for the administration of their religious needs.[31] In the late 18th century, conflict grew within some of these churches between Unitarian and Trinitarian factions. In 1805, Unitarians gained key faculty positions at Harvard. In 1819 William Ellery Channing preached the ordination sermon for Jared Sparks in Baltimore, outlining the Unitarian position. The American Unitarian Association was founded as a separate denomination in 1825.[32] By coincidence and unknown to both parties, the AUA was formed on the same day—May 26, 1825—as the British and Foreign Unitarian Association [33]

In the 19th century, under the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson (who had been a Unitarian minister)[34] and other transcendentalists, Unitarianism began its long journey from liberal Protestantism to its present more pluralist form.[35]

Integration 1825–1961

After the schism, some of those churches remained within the Congregational fold, while others voted to become Unitarian. In the aftermath of their various historical circumstances, some of these churches became member congregations of the Congregational organization (later the United Church of Christ), others became Unitarian. Some of them eventually became part of the UUA during a consolidation of the Unitarian and Universalist churches. Universalist churches in contrast followed a different path, having begun as independent congregations beyond the bounds of the established Puritan churches entirely. Today, the UUA and the United Church of Christ cooperate jointly on social justice initiatives such as the Sexuality Education Advocacy Training project.[36]

In 1961, the American Unitarian Association (AUA) was consolidated with the Universalist Church of America (UCA), thus forming the Unitarian Universalist Association.[37] In the same year, the Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC) formed.[38] The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) was also given corporate status in May 1961 under special acts of legislature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the State of New York.

In 1998, the CUC and UUA dissolved their financial accord, although they continue to cooperate.[38]


The defining belief of Unitarian Universalism is that religion is a matter of individual experience, and that, therefore, only the individual can decide what to "believe." The roots of this belief can be found in the Unitarian insistence on freedom of personal conscience in matters of faith. As a result, while Unitarian Universalists have no required creed, they treat as a sacred value complete and responsible freedom of speech, thought, belief, faith, and disposition. Unitarian Universalists believe that each person is free to search for his or her own personal truth on issues, such as the existence, nature, and meaning of life, deities, creation, and afterlife. UUs can come from any religious background, and hold beliefs and adhere to morals from a variety of cultures or religions. They believe that what binds them together as a faith community is not a creed, but a belief in the power and sacredness of covenant based on unconditional love. That love is enough to hold together such variety derives from their Universalist heritage which affirms a God of all-inclusive love.

Current concepts about deity, however, are diverse among UUs. While some are still monotheistic, often from a Judeo-Christian perspective, many profess atheism or agnosticism. UUs see no contradiction in open atheists and agnostics being members of their community because of the rich Unitarian legacy of free inquiry and reason in matters of faith. Still other UUs subscribe to deism, pantheism, or polytheism. Many UUs reject the idea of deities and instead speak of the "spirit of life" that binds all life on earth.

Seven Principles and Purposes

Deliberately without an official creed or dogma (per the principle of freedom of thought), many Unitarian Universalists make use of the Principles and Purposes as a list of principles for guiding behavior. These "Principles and Purposes" are taken from the by-laws which govern the Unitarian Universalist Association. While these were written to govern congregations, not individuals, many UUs use them as guides for living their faith. The "Seven Principles" were created in committee and affirmed democratically by a vote of member congregations at an annual General Assembly (a meeting of delegates from member congregations). Adopted in 1960, the full Principles, Purposes and Sources can be found in the article on the Unitarian Universalist Association. The Principles are as follows:

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:

Unitarian Universalism is often referred to by its members 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 and generally known as the Seventh Principle, "Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part", and a sixth 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 pantheist spiritualities.[46]

Six Sources

Unitarian Universalists place emphasis on spiritual growth and development. The official statement of Unitarian Universalist principles describes the "sources" upon which current practice is based:[47]

Diversity of practices

The Unitarian belief that reason, and not creed, defines the search for truth, and the Universalist belief that God embraces all people equally has led to the current Unitarian Universalist belief that truth and spiritual meaning can be found in all faiths. This is reflected in the wide-array of spiritual practices found among UUs today. Many Unitarian Universalist congregations include Buddhist-style meditation groups, Jewish Seder, Yom Kippur and Passover dinners, iftaar meals (marking the breaking of Ramadan fast for Muslims), and Christmas Eve/Winter Solstice services. Children's and youth's religious education classes teach about the divinity of the world and the sanctity of world religions. One of its more popular curricula, Neighboring Faiths (formerly Church Across the Street), takes middle and high school participants to visit the places of worship of many faith traditions including a Hindu temple, a Reform or Orthodox synagogue, and a Catholic church.

There is great variety among Unitarian Universalist congregations, with some favoring particular religious beliefs or forms of worship over others, with many more home to an eclectic mix of beliefs. Regardless of their orientation, most congregations are fairly open to differing beliefs, though not always with various faith traditions represented to the same degree.

There is also a wide variety in how congregations conceive of themselves. Congregations call themselves "churches", "societies", "fellowships", "congregations", or eschew the use of any particular descriptor (e.g. "Sierra Foothills Unitarian Universalists"). Whether a congregation is a 'fellowship' or a 'church' sometimes hinges on whether it is led by one (or more) minister(s): those without ministers being fellowships, those with ministers being churches. Many use the name "Unitarian Universalist", (and a few "Universalist Unitarian"), having gradually adopted this formulation since consolidation in 1961. Others use names that reflect their historic roots by keeping simply the designation "Unitarian" or "Universalist" (e.g. "Community Unitarian Church at White Plains"). A few congregations use neither. For some congregations, the name can be a clue to their theological orientation. For others, avoidance of the word "church" indicates a desire to distance itself from traditional Christian theology. Sometimes the use of another term may simply indicate a congregation's lay-led or relatively new status. However, some UU congregations have grown to appreciate alternative terms such as fellowship and retained them even though they have grown much larger or lost features sometimes associated with their use (such as, in the case of fellowships, a traditionally lay-led worship model).[48]

Also of note is that there are many more people who identify as UU on surveys than those who attend UU churches (by a factor of four in a recent survey),[49] reflecting those who have never joined (and lapsed members) but nonetheless consider themselves part of the UU movement.

Approach to sacred writings

Both Unitarianism and Universalism were originally Christian denominations, and still reference Jewish and Christian texts. Today, Unitarian Universalist approach to the Christian/Jewish Bible and other sacred works is given in Our Unitarian Universalist Faith: Frequently Asked Questions, published by the UUA:

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—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.

In short, Unitarian Universalists respect the important religious texts of other religions. UUs believe that all religions can coexist if viewed with the concept of love for one's neighbor and for oneself. Other church members who do not believe in a particular text or doctrine are encouraged to respect it as a historically significant literary work that should be viewed with an open mind. It is intended that in this way, individuals from all religions or spiritual backgrounds could live peaceably.

Elevator speeches

In 2004, UU World magazine asked for contributions of "elevator speeches" explaining Unitarian Universalism.[50] These are short speeches that could be made in the course of an elevator ride to those who knew nothing of the religion. Here are examples 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[51]
Most Unitarian Universalists believe that nobody has a monopoly on all truth, or ultimate proof of the truth of everything in any one belief. Therefore, one's own truth is unprovable, as is that of others. Consequently, we should respect the beliefs of others, as well as their right to hold those beliefs. Conversely, we expect that others should respect our right to our own beliefs. Several UU's then, would likely hold as many different beliefs. Other beliefs they may hold in common are a respect for others, for nature, and for common decency, leading to a particular caring for the poor, the weak and the downtrodden. As a result, issues of justice, including social justice are held in common among most.
Gene Douglas, Harrah, OK[52]
It's a blessing each of us was born; It matters what we do with our lives; What each of us knows about God is a piece of the truth; We don't have to do it alone.
Laila Ibrahim, Berkeley, CA[51]

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. In form, church services might be difficult to distinguish from those of a Protestant church, but they vary widely among congregations.[37]


The most common symbol of Unitarian Universalism is the flaming chalice, often framed by two overlapping rings that many interpret as representing Unitarianism and Universalism (the symbol has no official interpretation). The chalice itself has long been a symbol of liberal religion, and indeed liberal Christianity (the Disciples of Christ also use a chalice as their denomination symbol[53]). The flaming chalice was initially the logo of the Unitarian Service Committee during the Second World War. It was created by Austrian artist Hans Deutsch, inspired by "the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice."[54]

Nevertheless, other interpretations have been suggested, such as the chalice used by the followers of Czech Jan Hus, or its vague resemblance to a cross in some stylized representations. Many UU congregations light a chalice at the beginning of worship services. Other symbols include an off-center cross within a circle (a Universalist symbol associated with the Humiliati movement in the 1950s, a group of reformist, liturgically minded clergy seeking to revive Universalism).

Other symbols include a pair of open hands releasing a dove.[55]

Services of worship

Religious services are usually held on Sundays and most closely resemble the form and format of Protestant worship in the Reformed tradition.[37] Services at a vast majority of congregations follow a structure that focuses on a sermon or presentation by a minister, a lay leader of the congregation, or an invited speaker.[56] Sermons may cover a wide range of topics. Since Unitarian Universalists do not recognize a particular text or set of texts as primary or inherently superior, inspiration can be found in many different religious or cultural texts as well as the personal experiences of the minister.

The service also includes hymn-singing, accompanied by organ, piano, or other available instruments, and possibly led by a song leader or choir. The most recent worship songbook published by the denomination, Singing the Journey[57] contains 75 songs and is a supplement to the older Singing the Living Tradition which contains readings as well.[58] Hymns typically sung in UU services come from a variety of sources—traditional hymn tunes with new or adapted lyrics, spirituals, folk songs from various cultures, or original compositions by Unitarian Universalist musicians are just a few. Instrumental music is also a common feature of the typical worship service, including preludes, offertory music, postludes, or music for contemplation.

Pastoral elements of the service may include a time for sharing Joys and Sorrows/Concerns, where individuals in the congregation are invited to light a candle and/or say a few words about important events in their personal lives. Many UU services also include a time of meditation or prayer, led by the minister or service leader, both spoken and silent. Responsive readings and stories for children are also typical. Many congregations also allow for a time at the end of the service, called "talk back", where members of the congregation can respond to the sermon with their own insights and questions, or even disagree with the viewpoint expressed by the minister or invited speaker.

Many UU congregations no longer observe the Christian sacraments of baptism, communion, or confirmation, at least in their traditional forms or under their traditional names. Congregations that continue these practices under their more traditional names are often federated churches or members of the Council of Christian Churches within the Unitarian Universalist Association (CCCUUA), or may have active chapters associated with the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship or similar covenant groups.[59] "Child dedications" often replace more traditional infant baptisms (though it should be noted that such "dedications" are sometimes practiced even in "orthodox" Christian communities that do not baptize infants for theological reasons). Annual celebrations of Water Communion and Flower Communion may replace or supplement Christian-style communion (though many pluralist and Christian-oriented congregations may celebrate or otherwise make provisions for communion on Christian holy days).[60] Confirmation may be replaced by a "Coming of Age" program, in which teenagers explore their individual religious identity, often developing their own credo. After they have completed exploring their spiritual beliefs, they write a speech about it which they then personally deliver to the congregation.


Historical politics of Unitarians and Universalists

Main article: Unitarianism

In the 19th century, Unitarians and Universalists were active in abolitionism, the women's movement, the temperance movement, and other social reform movements. The second women's rights convention was held at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York. Additionally, four Presidents of the United States were Unitarians: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, and William Howard Taft.[61]

Politics of Unitarian Universalists

A Unitarian Assembly in Louisville, Kentucky.[62]

Historically, Unitarian Universalists have often been active in political causes, notably the Civil Rights Movement,[63] the LGBT rights movement, the social justice movement, and the feminist movement.

Susan B. Anthony, a Unitarian and Quaker, was extremely influential in the women's suffrage movement. Unitarian Universalists and Quakers still share many principles. It is therefore common to see Unitarian Universalists and Quakers working together.

UU's were and are still very involved in the fight to end racism in the United States. John Haynes Holmes, a Unitarian minister and social activist at The Community Church of New York—Unitarian Universalist was among the founders of both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), chairing the latter for a time. 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 Liuzzo, a Unitarian Universalist civil rights activist, was murdered by white supremacists after her participation in the protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights are best known as Bloody Sunday, although technically that refers only to March 7, the most violent day of the three.

The past head of the Unitarian Universalist Association 2001–2009, Rev. William G. Sinkford, is African-American, making Unitarian Universalism one of the first traditionally white denominations to be headed by a member of a racial minority.[64]

While political liberals make up a clear majority of Unitarian Universalists, the UU movement aspires to diversity, and officially welcomes congregants regardless of their political views. Politically conservative Unitarian Universalists point out that neither religious liberalism nor the Principles and Purposes of the UUA require liberal politics. Like the beliefs of Unitarian Universalists, politics are decided by individuals, not by congregations or the denomination.

Several congregations have undertaken a series of organizational, procedural and practical steps to become acknowledged as a "Welcoming Congregation": a congregation which has taken specific steps to welcome and integrate gay, lesbian, bisexual & transgender (GLBT) members. UU ministers perform same-sex unions and now same-sex marriages where legal (and sometimes when not, as a form of civil protest). On June 29, 1984, the Unitarian Universalists became the first major church "to approve religious blessings on homosexual unions."[65] Unitarian Universalists have been in the forefront of the work to make same-sex marriages legal in their local states and provinces, as well as on the national level. Gay men, bisexuals, and lesbians are also regularly ordained as ministers, and a number of gay, bisexual, and lesbian ministers have, themselves, now become legally married to their partners. In May 2004, Arlington Street Church, in Boston, Massachusetts, was the site of the first state-sanctioned same-sex marriage in the United States. The official stance of the UUA is for the legalization of same-sex marriage—"Standing on the Side of Love". In 2004 UU minister Rev. Debra Haffner of The Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing published An Open Letter on Religious Leaders on Marriage Equality to affirm same-sex marriage from a multi-faith perspective. In December 2009, Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty signed the bill to legalize same-sex marriage for the District of Columbia in All Souls Church, Unitarian (Washington, D.C.)

Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness engages UU ministers and other leaders to educate them on polyamory.[66] At the 2015 UUA General Assembly, the Association's non-discrimination rule was amended to include the category of "family and relationship structures";[67] the UUA has yet to take specific follow-up action on this, however.

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.



Lack of formal creed

The lack of formal creed has been a cause for criticism 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. However, within weeks, Strayhorn reversed her decision.[68]

Confusion with other groups

There are separate movements and organizations of Christians who hold to classical Unitarian or Christian Universalist theology and do not belong to the Unitarian Universalist Association or consider themselves UUs. The American Unitarian Conference and the Christian Universalist Association are the two most significant organizations representing these theological beliefs today. Christians who hold these beliefs tend to consider themselves the true Unitarians or Universalists and heirs of the theological legacy of the original American Unitarian Association or Universalist Church of America, and they do not wish to be confused with UUs and UUism. The Unity Church is another denomination that is often confused with Unitarian Universalism.[69]


Language of reverence

During the presidency of the Rev. William Sinkford, debate within the UU movement has roiled over his call to return to or create an authentic UU "language of reverence." Sinkford has suggested that UUs have abandoned traditional religious language, thereby abandoning words with potential power to others who will then dictate their meanings in the public sphere. He has suggested that Unitarian Universalists regain their proper seat at the interfaith table by making this language their own. Others have reacted to this call by believing it to be part of an effort to return UU congregations to more orthodox Christian worship patterns. Sinkford has denied this, citing the words of UU humanists as examples of what he means by the "language of reverence." The debate seems part and parcel of an attendant effort at increasing biblical literacy among Unitarian Universalists, including the publication of a book by the UUA's Beacon Press written by former UUA President John Buehrens.[70] The book is titled Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers, and Religious Liberals,[71] and is meant as a kind of handbook to be read alongside the Bible itself. It provides interpretative strategies, so that UUs (among others) might be able to engage in public debate about what the Bible says from a liberal religious perspective, rather than relinquishing to religious conservatives, and other more literal interpretations, all control over the book's contents and significance in matters of public and civic import. Also an important work by Rev. Buehrens, along with Forrest Church, is A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism,[72] in which the authors explore the many sources of the living tradition of their chosen faith.

Borrowing from other religions

The "borrowing" of religious rituals from other faith traditions by Unitarian Universalists was discussed at the UU General Assembly in 2001 during a seminar titled Cultural Appropriation: Reckless Borrowing or Appropriate Cultural Sharing by the Religious Education Dept, UUA.[73][74] Of particular discussion was the borrowing rituals and practices that are sacred to specific tribes or using spiritual practices without real context.

When UUs pick and choose from these things, it trivializes their spiritual practices. The specificity [of their use] is so complete, that visiting Native Americans do not participate in another tribe's rituals, and to do so would be perceived as foolish. I would not even practice the rituals of my own tribe, because I am not an elder or spiritual leader. If this is true of her own people, then the use of these things by others who share no cultural context is seen not only as particularly foolish and inappropriate.

Not all of this usage is inappropriate, though. Some taped music, written prayers, that kind of thing, might be all right, but it's not right to fool around with it. If it's not in context, if the user is not walking with us, if the user is not part of our struggle, then it is presumptuous.

Reverend Danielle Di Bona, 2001 General Assembly[73]


Number of members

As of December, 2015 the UUA had 1,018 UU member congregations in the United States and 1,043 UU member congregations when including two congregations in the U.S. Virgin Islands, 19 in Canada, six in other countries,[79] plus 28 multi-denominational member congregations: 17 in MA, four in IL, three in NH, two in VT, and one each in ME and D.C. Seven of the ten US states with the most congregations are also among the most populous states; the state with the most congregations and members is Massachusetts; Vermont is No. 1 relative to its total population. A map using 2010 U.S. Census data showing the relative number of congregations per 1 million people is posted here.[80] And as of September 2014 there are 46 UU congregations and emerging groups in Canada affiliated with the CUC.[81] In 2015, there were 156,620 adult congregational members and 47,623 children enrolled in religious education programs.

At the time of the merger between Universalists and Unitarians, membership (both US and Canadian) was perhaps half a million. Membership rose after the merger but then fell in the 1970s.

In 1956, Sam Wells wrote that "Unitarians and Universalists are considering merger which would have total U.S. membership of 160,000 (500,000 in world)".[82] In 1965 Conkin wrote that "In 1961, at the time of the merger, membership [in the United States] was 104,821 in 651 congregations, and the joint membership soared to its historically highest level in the mid-1960s (an estimated 250,000) before falling sharply back in the 1970s [...]".[83] According to the 2008 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations claimed 214,738 members in 2002.[84]

Estimates from the 1990s put world membership between 120,000 and 600,000.[85]

In the United States, the American Religious Identification Survey reported 629,000 members describing themselves as Unitarian Universalist in 2001, an increase from 502,000 reported in a similar survey in 1990.[86] The highest concentrations are in New England and around Seattle, Washington.[87]

The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and featuring a sample size of over 35,000, puts the proportion of American adults identifying as Unitarian Universalist at 0.3%.[88]

The 2001 Canadian census done by Statistics Canada put Canadian Unitarians at 17,480,[89] and the September 1, 2007 membership statistics from the CUC show they had at that time 5,150 official members.[90] In 2015, the CUC reported 3,804 members.[91]

Notable members

Notable congregations

See also


  1. "Unitarian Universalism: Profile of the Unitarian Universalist Association". Retrieved 2013-04-07.
  2. "Believe", Introduction, UK: Unitarian, archived from the original on June 5, 2014
  3. "Unitarianism and Unitarian congregations". ZA: Unitarian. Retrieved 8 November 2014.
  4. "Unitarian Universalist Principles and Sources". Canadian Unitarian Council. Retrieved 8 November 2014.
  5. The 4th principle of Unitarian Universalism.
  6. 7th Principle: Respect for the Interdependent Web of All Existence of Which We Are a Part, UUA.
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