What’s great about having a blog (even a frequently dormant one like mine) is receiving e-mails from all sorts of interesting people. I have recently been corresponding with a Canadian Unitarian minister who is interested in Islam and other world religions. I asked him about Unitarianism and he was more than generous in his response:
Today the Unitarian church is the most liberal of the protestant groups. Some Christians and even many Unitarians do not consider us Christian. We are very humanistic in our outlook.
Unitarianism has its historical roots in Eastern Europe, England and the United States. In Eastern Europe it has survived in the Transylvania area. In England it developed out of the non-conformist church. In the United States it was the religious dimension of the "New England Enlightenment" of the early part of the 19th Century. It is Unitarian in that they denied the notion of the trinity. We jokingly say that "Unitarians believe in one God, at most!" This narrow theological doctrine has never been the extent of our religious view. We tend to have a more positive view of human nature than mainstream Christians do. The other branch of our denomination, the Universalists originally defined by the theological idea that all men and women would be saved. They had a very positive view of a benevolent God as opposed to the "fire and brimstone" theology of evangelical Christians. A funny expression among us is that "The Unitarians believed that Man was too good to be damned while Universalist thought that God was too good to damn Man." Both were Anti-Calvinist movements. Both have deep roots in the American ethos. They have been called "Americas Fourth Faith" along with Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. A case could be made for the Fourth Faith to include besides Unitarian and Universalists, Liberal Quakers, Reformed Jews, Ethical Culturalists and Religious Humanists. [The US (and Canada) has changed due to immigration such that Muslims, Hindus and Buddhist are significant in number to our religious tapestry. The idea of America having three or four faiths is outdated.]
Socially Unitarians are usually very well educated, socially and politically involved in their community. They seem to believe that Faith has more to do with how you behave rather than what you say you believe. "It is best to be known by deeds rather than creeds". Historically we have been in the forefront of education for women, concern for convicts, mental health, social work, anti-slavery, civil rights and opposition to war.
Throughout Christian history there has been a minor theme of Unitarian Christianity. In fact, early in its history Unitarian theology might have been a majority view. At the Council of Nicea Trinitarian Christianity was made the orthodoxy. Since then Unitarianism has been a heretical view. It has had other names. Other than Unitarian. Today there are Christian theologians who do not hold to Trintitarianism in mainstream Christianity. There certainly is room for dialogue.... Channing was one of the early shapers of Unitarianism in America. The other two were Theodore Parker and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Parker was most famous for his anti-slavery efforts and Emerson was a literary figure. Emerson had notions in his writing influenced by Hindu thought. He wrote about the notion of the "oversoul". All three of these men were Unitarian clergymen.
Internationally, Unitarians belong to the International Association for Religious Freedom. This is an interfaith group. It even includes one small Muslim group if i remember correctly. There are also Buddhists, Hindus and Shinto and other groups. We are excluded from the Christian Council of Churches for we refuse to swear to a creed. Usually these groups require one "Believes in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour". Our faith has no creedal test of membership. Lots of Christians do not hold strictly to this test but swear to it for the sake of Christian Unity. In fact, I have recently read some Christian material that is indistinguishable from current Unitarian views. We are no longer such a heretical group.
Unitarians have long bee interested in World Religions. I spent one year taking a course at Harvard's Centre for the Study of World Religion. In the 19th Century and into the early 20th Century Harvard was the intellectual centre for Unitarianism. Harvard Divinity School has trained many of our ministers. I attended Tufts University, a Universalist University. I also took courses at Harvard, Boston University School of Theology and Andover Newton Theological School. Those were my days as a wandering student in Boston…
and a follow up:
I just googled "Antitrinitarianism" there is lots of information available on the history of this unitarian view of the Christian doctrine of God. The major history of Christianity has been written by Trinitarian Christianity but the unitarian view goes back to the beginning and has a persistent influence through the ages. There are many names for unitarian views: Armininism, arianism, socinianism, Polish Brethren, antitrinitariansm, protoantitrinitarianism etc. Seventh-Day Adventist today hold a unitarian view of God.
Unitarians, Universalist and other liberal Christians are comfortable with a unitarian view of God. Of course, in the modern day in Christianity there are few theological debates except among academics.