Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society
William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Rooted in Christianity, Unitarianism represents both a theological position and a religious organization.

Strictly speaking, theological unitarianism means denying the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity, that God is "three-in-one : Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Classical unitarianism taught the Fatherhood of God alone, and the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. As a theological position, Unitarianism can be dated to the fourth-century Christological controversies. It was revived during the Reformation, principally by Socinius.

The Unitarian Church in the United States dates from the nineteenth century; although there were multiple wellsprings of unitarianism, including the transcendentalism emanating from Harvard University, an ordination sermon William Ellery Channing delivered in Baltimore in 1819 is normally cited as the formal beginning of the organized movement, sometimes called "liberal Christianity." Organizationally, American Unitarianism may be seen as a division from founding New England Congregationalism; it represents the organizational culmination of late eighteenth-century deist ideology. The American Unitarian Association was founded in 1825. For some years, there was a competition of sorts between the AUA and the Western Unitarian Conference, headquartered in Chicago, the WUC being considered more radical. In 1961, the AUA and the Universalists merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), still headquartered in Boston. Although there had been debate about the "Christianity" of Unitarianism since the late nineteenth century, from the 1960s on there has been a more marked tendency in the UUA to distance itself from Christianity and to embrace a wider variety of spiritualities.

Sociologically, Unitarian Universalists are dramatically well educated in comparison with the general population and similarly overrepresented among socioeconomic elites. The UUA has significant difficulties in holding its membership, which numbers about 250,000, cross-generationally. Its major institutions are the Harvard Divinity School, Meadville-Lombard (Chicago), and Starr King (Berkeley, California).

William H. Swatos, Jr


R. W. Lee, "Strained Bedfellows," Sociology of Religion 56(1995):379-396

D. Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1985)

R. Tapp, Religion Among the Unitarian Universalists (New York: Seminar Press, 1973).

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