UNITARIAN HISTORY

Ken Morrison

While there was an Aniarism, anti-Trinity heresy going back to the early centuries of Christianity, for our purposes I think it is safe to say that the Unitarianism we know began as an offshoot of the radical Reformation, which was one of the branches of the Protestant tree planted by Martin Luther. You will recall that Luther proclaimed that if something was not scriptural, he could not support it. With the Bible now in the vernacular in many lands, his followers started examining Holy Writ critically. A number of them came to the conclusion that the Doctrine of the Trinity, that the godhead was three in one, was unscriptural. This conclusion has been supported by subsequent scholarship which sees the Doctrine of the Trinity as a 4th Century interpolation inserted to provide the doctrine with biblical support.

This heresy popped up all over Europe with particular strength in Poland. It was abhorrent to both the Protestant and the Catholic establishments, and a number of people lost their lives, and others their jobs, by proclaiming it. The Counter Reformation saw Unitarianism generally suppressed across Europe with the notable exception of Transylvania, then under Turkish rule, where it survived under Turkish protection since Unitarianism was opposed by the Turk's #1 enemy, the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor. Unitarianism continues to survive in Transylvania as a very traditional church run by bishops with "God is One" over each church door, and men and women sitting separately. Essentially, the Enlightenment didn't penetrate that far east. Unknown to western Unitarians for centuries, the Transylvania Unitarians are now an active part of the world wide Unitarian movement.

In the English speaking world Unitarianism first made a significant appearance as a by-product of the religious ferment created by the Puritan Revolution in England (1641-1660). Various radical sects were thrown up by this turbulent development, among them the Unitarians and the Quakers. When the monarchy was restored the Church of England demanded that all its clergy subscribe to its 39 Articles of Faith. Many refused to do so, and were dismissed from their livings. Some took their congregations with them, and these congregations, along with those from other sources, in time, formed the Unitarian movement. Theirs was a rocky road. Early toleration acts specifically excluded Unitarians along with Roman Catholics. Members could not hold public offices, be an officer in the army, or attend Oxford or Cambridge universities until the 1840s, and even in World War II there were no Unitarian chaplains in the British army. But, in a typical English fashion little cracks existed which allowed the denomination to survive. Main streets were reserved for the established church, but dissenting chapels could be built on side streets. By "occasional conformity", that is by a dissenter from time to time attending Church of England services, individuals could circumvent some of the anti-Unitarian taboos.

As in the United States, which we will discuss later, the heyday of Unitarianism in Britain was in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. In this period the denomination thrived. Its members took an active party in anti-slavery and other reform movements, and a whole host of public and literary figures were associated with it. For reasons we will discuss more fully when we deal with the American experience, the denomination lost steam as the century progressed, and World War 1 was a cruel blow to a movement which believed in "onward and upward" forever. Currently the denomination in Britain is in a sad state with the vast majority of its societies struggling, surviving chiefly because of generous endowments left by 19th Century supporters.

Turning now to the United States and particularly to the Unitarians (The Universalists traveled a parallel course, the chief differences being that the Universalists stressed that a loving God wanted all his children to make it to Heaven, and appealed to a more rural clientele than the Unitarians ). Unitarianism got its start initially from British Unitarians, notably Joseph Priestly the discoverer of oxygen, fleeing from persecution at home. The presidency of Thomas Jefferson and the general spread of Jeffersonian liberalism influenced the churches and caused many liberal Congregational churches to break with their rigid Calvinist heritage and turn toward Unitarianism. Unitarian doctrine was formalized in William Ellery Channing's famous Baltimore sermon of 1819, which led to the founding of the American Unitarian Association in 1925. The following decades were the heyday of American Unitarianism. A couple of presidents were Unitarians, as were notable literary figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. Almost all reform movements such as: anti-slavery, prison, education , women's suffrage and so on, saw Unitarians in prominent roles. Canadian Unitarianism, initially the product of missionary work from Britain, notably Northern Ireland, benefited also from some spill-over from these American developments. Also, many Universalist congregations which sprang up in Canada in the Nineteenth Century were extensions of the American movement. Most have since died, with Halifax, Olinda, and Ontario congregations being the notable remnants. Stefan Jonasson, our former district consultant, and himself a product of this development, claims that the Icelandic Unitarians of Manitoba were really Universalists in doctrine but became Unitarians because they were serviced by Unitarian mission efforts.

The 1870s and 1880s saw a sharp downturn in the denomination's fortunes. The industrial revolution reached take off in the United States and with it came class struggle, reflected in the birth of trade unions, socialist parties, and the like. Class struggle was a development uncongenial to liberals, then as now. As in Britain, business successful Unitarians often abandoned their Unitarian and Universalist roots and switched to more socially approved churches. But, probably the most devastating development was the changes in public attitudes, as a result of scientific breakthroughs. Higher criticism of the Bible and Charles Darwin's insights both suggested that biblical stories were myths and, therefore, the Bible was not to be taken literally. Louis Pasteur's discovery of germs undermined traditional beliefs in an arbitrary, vengeful God. In this climate other churches took over major planks in the Unitarian and Universalist platforms: belief in a loving rather than a harsh God, belief in human agency to deal with earthly problems, belief that the Christian duty was to try to bring heaven to earth, and so on. The terms "liberal religion" and "social gospel" appeared around this time. One could be a liberal Christian without being a Unitarian or a Universalist.

Inevitably, movements developed to unite all liberal Christians into one church. This movement was particularly strong in western Canada, and Horace Westwood, after whom the Westwood Fellowship in Edmonton is named, strongly supported this development. Many Unitarians became involved which resulted in much draining away of support for Unitarianism into the United Church. I find it significant that Arbourg, which has the only small town Unitarian congregation in western Canada, also has no United Church.

In the United States, as in Great Britain, the First World War devastated the "onward and upward forever" expectations of the liberally minded, and produced unpleasant post-war by-products. Around 1923, former president Taft, in the role of president of the American Unitarian Association, bulldozed a resolution through the A.U.A. general assembly blackballing Unitarian ministers who had opposed American entry into World War 1. The Unitarian tradition of dissent and freedom of opinion was seriously undermined . Further, the Red Scare and the demonizing of "atheistic communism" meant that the Unitarian position on the God Question was open to politically dangerous misinterpretation. And finally, in the mid-twenties, there was a serious split between traditional Unitarian
Christians and deists, humanists, and the like. The split so traumatized the professional leadership of the denomination that the denomination's liberal theological origins were put into a deep freeze, only officially resurfacing recently in U.U.A. president, William Sinkford's "elevator statement," his brief answer to the question "What is a Unitarian Universalist?". Instead, the concentration came to be on the safer Jeffersonian liberalism. This doctrine, reflected in our Purposes and Principles, presented fewer political and theological hazards than proclaiming liberal theology, and talking about our original beliefs.

While the inter-war period was a low time for Unitarians and Universalists, who were mostly silent on the major issues of the time, the post World War II period was a rosy era for the church. The two denominations which had long cooperated were now united. It was a period of boom and optimism. The victory over fascism gave new hope to liberal democracy, and social programs like the New Deal hailed a fairer and kinder society. In the post-war baby boom, those dissatisfied with old theologies flocked to Unitarian Universalism churches, with the denomination's superb religious education programs being a big draw. New societies sprung up all over the place, as lay-led fellowships. The typical new fellowship, of which ours was one, appeared in a university town and often with university faculty leadership. If a significant percentage of those who passed through UU congregations in this period had stayed on, we would be one of the largest denominations on the continent.

Unfortunately, they did not. Members flowed out the back door almost as quickly as they came in the front, and few of the children who benefited from the excellent R.E. programs returned as adults. The denomination lacked the theological glue to hold onto either the adults or their children. The Lakehead Unitarian Fellowship was typical. Founded in 1959 it boomed for a few years with a membership as high as 65, and plans in hand to build a new building. Then the wheels came off. Key families left town, a fine young president died in an automobile accident, and the Fellowship went from meeting twice a month with a R.E. program to meeting once a month in private homes or hotel rooms. It almost died. Rescue for us came when we discovered a pleasant, high profile meeting place in the Mallard Room at St. Joseph's Heritage. It provided storage space, room for restarting a R.E. program for the children, and a piano which Heather Morrison fortuitously joined us to play. Things were looking up. We sometimes got 25 people out on a Sunday morning! We were on a roll!

What will happen now if we grow, as we should? Should we acquire a bigger building? How long can we carry on without ministerial leadership? These are some of the big questions members of this congregation are discussing under the leadership of Rev. Karen Gustafson. Then there are the questions raised by the reorganization of the denomination to give the Canadian branch more autonomy. And, finally, the end of the Cold War, the challenge of religious fundamentalism, and post September 11th developments all emphasized the need to reattach ourselves to our Unitarian and Universalist theological roots. In particular, I have long argued that we need to develop a doctrine which both faces the fact that most of us don't believe in the traditional Christian God, and the fact that the biggest challenges to our moral and ethical convictions come not from choices we make as individuals, good and bad, but from the dilemmas we face, when as part of an organization or nation state we face demand for loyalty, patriotism and conformity, which are from time to time at odds with our personal and denominational convictions.

We live in interesting times, as the famous saying goes, both in terms of the wider world and in terms of the future of the denomination in Canada. The discussion around the revision of our Purposes and Principles gives us an opportunity to come to grips with some of the questions I have mentioned above. As I have argued elsewhere, the growth and vitality of the Unitarian Universalist movement is not only a religious duty, but it is also a civic duty. What a better world this would be if there were more, many more, Unitarian Universalists. To paraphrase Churchill - We must not falter or fail. We must press on to the end with courage and with the belief that our cause is right and that a vast number of people out there long to hear our message.

© 2017 Lakehead Unitarian Fellowship • 129 S. Algoma St. Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada P7B 3B7 • (807) 344-5980