18 November 2009

9 Differences between Universalists and Unitarians, and 4 Things They Have in Common

. . . In my experience, the average Unitarian Universalist knows very little about UU history, and what they do know is usually superficial and often downright incorrect. Even more alarming is that often, when I chat about Universalism, I find that the average UU knows even less about Universalist history. Inevitable they will ask me, what's the difference between Unitarians and Universalists anyway? Hence this little list.

Please note: These lists are historical in content. By the 1920s-1940s, most of these differences ceased to matter. American Universalists and American Unitarians consolidated in 1961, although among UUs today there are still some that identify more with one side than the other.

(Much of this material is from the massive book by Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope, Volume 2: The Second Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1870–1970.)

9 Differences between Universalists and Unitarians

1. In the early days, Universalism appealed mainly to the common people while Unitarianism appealed to a much smaller and wealthier class.

2. In the early days, there were few college graduates among the ministers of Universalism but nearly every Unitarian preacher was a graduate of Harvard.

3. In the early days, Universalist preachers, typified by Hosea Ballou I (1771–1852), were philosophers, poets, reformers, philanthropists. Unitarian preachers, typified by William Ellery Channing (1780–1842), were thinkers, logicians, theologians, controversialists.

4. Unitarians appealed to the aristocratic, cultural, trained mind. Universalists appealed to the democratic, spiritual, "warmth and fervor" side.

5. Universalists hung on to the Bible longer than the Unitarians. Universalists emphasized the goodness of God and the moral leadership of Jesus. Unitarians emphasized biblical criticism and the ethical elements in political and social problems.

6. Unitarianism never took hold among the common people. Unitarians saw their mission being with the scholarly and elite.

7. Universalists were ahead of Unitarians in racial equality. African Americans were members of the first Universalist congregation in America. Universalists started schools and social service agencies to help poverty-stricken blacks after the Civil War. Universalists had interracial congregations in Northern cities and black congregations in the rural South. On the other hand, the American Unitarian Association (AUA) systematically ignored the few black preachers and congregations their faith attracted. In slavery days there were even some Unitarians who owned slaves and defended human slavery, and in the early 20th century the AUA actually published books by Unitarian authors on white racial superiority.

8. Universalists led the way in women's equality. They accepted a woman preacher as early as 1811 (Maria Cook, 1779–1835), ordained the first woman in 1860 (Lydia Ann Jenkins, 1824–1874), and in 1869 had a national organization of Universalist women that stood on par with the church. Unitarians did ordained a few women in the late 1800s, but in the early 20th century they actually pushed women who wanted to be ministers into "parish assistant" roles.

9. There is no record of a Universalist ever excluding a Unitarian from their circle. There are several examples on record of Unitarians excluding Universalists.

4 Things Unitarians and Universalists had in Common

1. Both were radical Protestant denominations with their roots in Europe; both started in North America in the late 1700s. The first Universalist congregation here was formed in Massachusetts in 1779. The first Unitarian congregation, also in Massachusetts, came into being in 1785.

2. Both denominations preached absolute freedom of religion, asserting that each person had the right to question, to learn, and to make up his or her own mind on matters of religious doctrine.

3. Both denominations practiced democracy in church governance.

4. Unitarian and Universalist views of the nature of Jesus have been essentially identical since the late 1700s.


Find more Universalist and Unitarian history in my little booklet, A Who's Who of UUs

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