Radical Christianity #2: Unitarianism and Universalism

Words by Wilson Huang

A belief that many people find core to Christianity is the Trinity; the idea that God is one God, but three Divine Persons: the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. Another core belief is the idea of eternal hell. However, you would be mistaken to think that all Christians believed in either of these ideas. There are historical Christian groups who have rejected them – including the Unitarians, who rejected the Trinity; and Universalists, who believed in universal reconciliation.

Unitarianism has its roots during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, a time where individualistic interpretations of the Bible without priests and churches were becoming prominent. During that time, people started challenging the Catholic Church and orthodox Christianity. This included the Lutherans, who followed Martin Luther and professed salvation through faith and not good actions and also some more radical ideas which would form the backbone of Unitarianism. The core Unitarian idea are that God is one and hence the humanity of Jesus, but also the worth of all human being (as opposed to the doctrine of original or ancestral sin); and universal reconciliation (as opposed to predestination, which is the idea that some people are meant to go to hell). Unitarianism generally speaking was an attempt to rationalise the Christian faith.

Universalism, similarly, also developed from dissent rejecting predestination ideas. Yet, while Universalists all reject any eternal hell, universalism itself had different ideas and some believed in a purgatorial or remedial hell – what one might call a stepping stone to heaven – while others rejected hell entirely. As a movement universalism developed around the 18th century and has historically been linked with Unitarianism, especially in the United States. This link, in turn, lead to a merger in 1961, when the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America combined to form the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). This denomination, which had roots in radial Christianity, evolved to incorporate all and no faiths.

With their radical ideas, Unitarians, Universalists and Unitarian Universalists (yes, it’s a bit of a mouthful) – just like the liberal Quakers I looked at last week – have all played roles in social activism such as the abolition movement, and gender and queer rights and as such have challenged so-called fundamental understanding of Christianity. Modern-day Unitarianism and Universalism, while not exclusively Christian, holds true to its roots and continually challenges the idea of what religion and Christianity are, allowing for individual faith and conscience without forcing a creed on anyone.

Next week, I will be looking at Dr Samuel Angus, who was a Presbyterian. He taught at this university and is someone who some may call a Unitarian or heretic.


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