Unitarian Universalism (UU) is a liberal religion characterized by a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning“. Unitarian Universalists assert no creed, but instead are unified by their shared search for spiritual growth, guided by a dynamic, “living tradition”. Currently, these traditions are summarized by the Six Sources and Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism, documents recognized by all congregations who choose to be a part of the Unitarian Universalist Association. These documents are ‘living’, meaning always open for revisiting and reworking. Unitarian Universalist (U.U.) congregations include many atheists, agnostics, and theists within their membership – and there are U.U. churches / fellowships / congregations / societies all over America – as well as others around the world. The roots of Unitarian Universalism lie in liberal Christianity, specifically Unitarianism and universalism. Unitarian Universalists state that from these traditions comes a deep regard for intellectual freedom and inclusive love. Congregations and members seek inspiration and derive insight from all major world religions.
The beliefs of individual Unitarian Universalists range widely, including atheism, agnosticism, pantheism, panentheism, pandeism, deism, humanism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Taoism, syncretism, Omnism, Bahá’i, and Neopaganism.
The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) was formed in 1961 through the consolidation of the American Unitarian Association, established in 1825, and the Universalist Church of America, established in 1793. The UUA is headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, and serves churches mostly in the United States. A group of thirty Philippine congregations is represented as a sole member within the UUA. The Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC) became an independent body in 2002. The UUA and CUC are, in turn, two of the seventeen members of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists.
Puritan roots and Congregationalist background
Unitarian Universalism was formed from the consolidation in 1961 of two historically separate Christian denominations, the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association, both based in the United States; the new organization formed in this merger was the Unitarian Universalist Association. At the time of the North American consolidation, Unitarians and Universalists had expanded beyond their roots in liberal Christian theology. Today they draw from a variety of religious traditions. Individuals may or may not self-identify as Christians or subscribe to Christian beliefs. Unitarian Universalist congregations and fellowships tend to retain some Christian traditions, such as Sunday worship with a sermon and the singing of hymns. The extent to which the elements of any particular faith tradition are incorporated into personal spiritual practice is a matter of individual choice for congregants, in keeping with a creedless, non-dogmatic approach to spirituality and faith development.
New England Unitarians evolved from the Pilgrim Fathers’ Congregational Christianity, which was originally based on a literal reading of the Holy Bible. Liberalizing Unitarians rejected the Trinitarian belief in the tri-personal godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost/Spirit. Instead, they asserted a unitary notion of God. In addition, they rejected the doctrine of original sin, moving away from the Calvinism of the Congregationalists.
New England Universalists rejected the Puritan forefathers’ emphasis on the select few, the Elect, who were supposed to be saved from eternal damnation by a just God. Instead Universalists asserted that all people will eventually be reconciled with God. Universalists rejected the hellfire and damnation of the evangelical preachers, who tried to revive the fundamentalist Christianity of the early Pilgrim fathers.
Main articles: Universalism and Christian Universalism
Universalists claim a long history, beginning with Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, though some modern scholars question whether either of these church fathers taught the defining doctrine of Universalism (universal salvation).
This core doctrine asserts that through Christ every single human soul shall be saved, leading to the “restitution of all things” (apocatastasis). In 1793, Universalism emerged as a particular denomination of Christianity in the United States, eventually called the Universalist Church of America. Early American advocates of universal salvation such as Elhanan Winchester, Hosea Ballou and John Murray taught that all souls would achieve salvation, sometimes after a period resembling purgatory. Christian universalism denies the doctrine of everlasting damnation, and proclaims belief in an entirely loving God who will ultimately redeem all human beings.
Main article: Unitarianism
Historically, various forms of Nontrinitarianism have appeared within Christianity. The term may refer to any belief about the nature of Jesus Christ that affirms God as a singular entity and rejects the doctrine of the Trinity, as affirmed by the mainstream Christianity: a consensus of Christian bishops at the First Council of Nicaea in 325. Nontrinitarianism was especially prevalent during the theological turmoils of the Protestant Reformation. A Spanish physician, Michael Servetus, studied the Bible and concluded that the concept of the Trinity, as traditionally conceived, was not biblical. His books On the Errors of the Trinity and Christianismi Restitutio caused much uproar. Servetus was eventually arrested, convicted of heresy, and burned at the stake in Geneva in 1553.
The term “Unitarian” entered the English language via Henry Hedworth, who applied it to the teachings of Laelio Sozzini and the Polish Socinians. Unitarian churches were formally established in Transylvania and Poland (by the Socinians) in the second half of the 16th century. There, the first doctrines of religious freedom in Europe were established (in the course of several diets between 1557 and 1568, see Edict of Torda) under the jurisdiction of John Sigismund, king of Hungary and Prince of Transylvania, the only Unitarian monarch. The early Unitarian church not only rejected the Trinity, but also the pre-existence of Christ as well as, in many cases, predestination and original sin as put forward by Augustine of Hippo, and the substitutionary atonement of Christ developed by Anselm of Canterbury and John Calvin. There were several different forms of Christology in the beginnings of the Unitarian movement; ultimately, the dominant Christology became psilanthropism: that Jesus was a man, but one with a unique relationship to God.
Influenced by the teachings of the Polish Socinians, Samuel Clarke (1675–1729) revised the Book of Common Prayer, removing the Trinitarian Nicene Creed and references to Jesus as God. Theophilus Lindsey also revised the Book of Common Prayer to allow a more tolerant, free Unitarian interpretation. Neither cleric was charged under the Blasphemy Act 1697 that made it an “offense for any person, educated in or having made profession of the Christian religion, by writing, preaching, teaching or advised speaking, to deny the Holy Trinity”. The Act of Toleration (1689) gave relief to English Dissenters, but excluded Unitarians. The efforts of Clarke and Lindsey met with substantial criticism from the more conservative clergy and laity of the Church of England. In response, in 1774, Lindsey applied for registration of the Essex House as a “Dissenting place of worship” with the assistance of barrister John Lee. On the Sunday following the registration—April 17, 1774—the first true Unitarian congregation discreetly convened in the provisional Essex Street Chapel. In attendance were Lee, Joseph Priestley and the agent of the Massachusetts Colony, Benjamin Franklin. Priestley also founded a reform congregation, but, after his home was burned down in the Priestley Riots, fled with his wife to America, where he became a leading figure in the founding of the church on American soil.
Once laity and clergy relaxed their vehement opposition to the Doctrine of the Trinity Act 1813, which finally allowed for protections of dissenting religions, the British and Foreign Unitarian Association was founded in 1825. It has its headquarters in Essex Hall, successor to Lindsey’s Essex House. Two that have been significant in national life are the Cross Street Chapel in Manchester and, Newington Green Unitarian Church in north London. Unitarian congregations in Britain today meet under the auspices of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. There are 170 communities of Unitarians across Britain.
In the United States, the Unitarian movement began primarily in the Congregational parish churches of New England, which were part of the state church of Massachusetts. These churches, whose buildings may still be seen today in many New England town squares, trace their roots to the division of the Puritan colonies into parishes for the administration of their religious needs. In the late 18th century, conflict grew within some of these churches between Unitarian and Trinitarian factions. In 1805, Unitarians gained key faculty positions at Harvard. In 1819 William Ellery Channing preached the ordination sermon for Jared Sparks in Baltimore, outlining the Unitarian position. The American Unitarian Association was founded as a separate denomination in 1825. By coincidence and unknown to both parties, the AUA was formed on the same day—May 26, 1825—as the British and Foreign Unitarian Association.
In the 19th century, under the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson (who had been a Unitarian minister) and other transcendentalists, Unitarianism began its long journey from liberal Protestantism to its present more pluralist form.
After the schism in the Congregational Churches resulting in the foundation (1825) of the American Unitarian Association, some of those churches remained within the Congregational fold and became member congregations of the Congregational organization (later the United Church of Christ), while others voted to become Unitarian. Some of the latter eventually became part of the Unitarian Universalist Association (formed in 1961) during a consolidation of the Unitarian and Universalist churches. Universalist churches in contrast followed a different path, having begun as independent congregations beyond the bounds of the established Puritan churches entirely. Today, the UUA and the United Church of Christ cooperate jointly on social justice initiatives such as the Sexuality Education Advocacy Training project.
In 1961 the American Unitarian Association (AUA) was consolidated with the Universalist Church of America (UCA), thus forming the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). In the same year, the Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC) formed. The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) was given corporate status in May 1961 under special acts of legislature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the State of New York.
In 1998 the Canadian Unitarian Council and Unitarian Universalist Association dissolved their financial accord, although they continue to cooperate. The CUC had come into being at Meadville in 1961. However the continual decline of denominational churches and the almost complete failure of the Universalist movement in Canada had caused the formation of the Council to prompt a plan to merge with the UUA. Opposition to Liberal religious freedom relaxed, so that by 2002 it was agreed to increase autonomy and funding. The amalgamation proved troublesome for the Canadians, in a small minority, and largely ignored with only 45 congregations and 5,200 members – the Americans were insensitive to cultural differences.
Belief, covenant, and scripture
Unitarian Universalists practice a non-creedal religion. Consequently, their individual beliefs are diverse, and their attitude toward each other’s beliefs and traditions is one of tolerance and acceptance. Rather than a focus on doctrine or belief, Unitarian Universalists find primary significance in their shared agreement, or covenant: member congregations agree to “affirm and promote” the Seven Principles. Rather than honoring a narrow religious tradition, Unitarian Universalists embrace a “living tradition” drawn from a multitude of sources, including the Six Sources.
Adopted in 1960, the Principles, Purposes and Sources can be found in the Bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The Principles are expressed,
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
Unitarian Universalists place emphasis on spiritual growth and development. The official statement of Unitarian Universalist principles describes the “sources” upon which current practice is based:
- Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
- Words and deeds of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
- Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
- Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
- Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
- Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
Unitarian Universalist principles and purposes have been modified over time to manifest a broader acceptance of beliefs and traditions among the membership. The seventh Principle (adopted in 1985), “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”, and a sixth Source (adopted in 1995), “Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature” were added to explicitly include members with neopagan, Native American, and pantheist spiritualities.
Approach to sacred writings
Both Unitarianism and Universalism were originally Christian denominations; they still reference Jewish and Christian texts. Today, the Unitarian Universalist approach to the Christian Bible, Hebrew Scriptures, and other sacred works is presented by the UUA:
While Unitarianism and Universalism both have roots in the Protestant Christian tradition, where the Bible is the sacred text, we now look to additional sources for religious and moral inspiration…. We celebrate the spiritual insights of the world’s religions, recognizing wisdom in many scriptures.
When we read scripture in worship, whether it is the Bible, the Dhammapada, or the Tao Te-Ching, we interpret it as a product of its time and its place,…not to be interpreted narrowly or oppressively…[S]cripture is never the only word, or the final word.
From the beginning we have trusted in the human capacity to use reason and draw conclusions about religion… [E]ach of us ultimately chooses what is sacred to us.
In short, Unitarian Universalists regard the texts of the world’s religions as works of people, worthy of respect, with the intention that people from all religions or spiritual backgrounds live peaceably with one another.
Worship and practice
Diversity of practices
The Unitarian belief that reason, and not creed, defines the search for truth, and the Universalist belief that God embraces all people equally has led to the current Unitarian Universalist belief that truth and spiritual meaning can be found in all faiths. This is reflected in the wide array of spiritual practices found among Unitarian Universalists today. Many Unitarian Universalist congregations include Buddhist-style meditation groups, Jewish Seder, Yom Kippur and Passover dinners, iftaar meals (marking the breaking of Ramadan fast for Muslims), and Christmas Eve/Winter Solstice services. Children’s and youth’s religious education classes teach about the divinity of the world and the sanctity of world religions. One of its more popular curricula, Neighboring Faiths (formerly Church Across the Street), takes middle and high school participants to visit the places of worship of many faith traditions including a Hindu temple, a Reform or Orthodox synagogue, and a Catholic church.
There is great variety among Unitarian Universalist congregations, with some favoring particular religious beliefs or forms of worship over others, with many more home to an eclectic mix of beliefs. Regardless of their orientation, most congregations are fairly open to differing beliefs, though not always with various faith traditions represented to the same degree.
Diversity of congregations
There is a wide variety in how congregations conceive of themselves, calling themselves “churches”, “societies”, “fellowships”, “congregations”, or eschew the use of any particular descriptor (e.g. “Unitarian Universalists of San Mateo”). Many use the name “Unitarian Universalist”, (and a few “Universalist Unitarian”), having gradually adopted this formulation since consolidation in 1961. Others use names that reflect their historic roots by keeping the historical designation “Unitarian” or “Universalist” (e.g. “First Unitarian Church”). A few congregations use neither (e.g. Unity Temple). For some congregations, the name can be a clue to their theological orientation. For others, avoidance of the word “church” indicates a desire to distance itself from traditional Christian theology. Sometimes the use of another term may simply indicate a congregation’s lay-led or relatively new status. However, some Unitarian Universalist congregations have grown to appreciate alternative terms such as fellowship and retained them even though they have grown much larger or lost features sometimes associated with their use (such as, in the case of fellowships, a traditionally lay-led worship model).
Also of note is that there are many more people who identify as Unitarian Universalist on surveys than those who attend Unitarian Universalist congregations (by a factor of four in a recent survey), reflecting those who have never joined (and lapsed members) but nonetheless consider themselves part of the Unitarian Universalist movement.
In 2004, UU World magazine asked for contributions of “elevator speeches” explaining Unitarian Universalism. These are short speeches that could be made in the course of an elevator ride to those who knew nothing of the religion. Here are examples of the speeches submitted:
In Unitarian Universalist congregations, we gather in community to support our individual spiritual journeys. We trust that openness to one another’s experiences will enhance our understanding of our own links with the divine, with our history, and with one another.— Jonalu Johnstone, Oklahoma City, OK
Most Unitarian Universalists believe that nobody has a monopoly on all truth, or ultimate proof of the truth of everything in any one belief. Therefore, one’s own truth is unprovable, as is that of others. Consequently, we should respect the beliefs of others, as well as their right to hold those beliefs. Conversely, we expect that others should respect our right to our own beliefs. Several UU’s then, would likely hold as many different beliefs. Other beliefs they may hold in common are a respect for others, for nature, and for common decency, leading to a particular caring for the poor, the weak and the downtrodden. As a result, issues of justice, including social justice are held in common among most.— Gene Douglas, Harrah, OK
It’s a blessing each of us was born; It matters what we do with our lives; What each of us knows about God is a piece of the truth; We don’t have to do it alone.— Laila Ibrahim, Berkeley, CA
Worship and ritual
As in theology, Unitarian Universalist worship and ritual are often a combination of elements derived from other faith traditions alongside original practices and symbols. In form, church services might be difficult to distinguish from those of a Protestant church, but they vary widely among congregations.
The most common symbol of Unitarian Universalism is the flaming chalice, often framed by two overlapping rings that many interpret as representing Unitarianism and Universalism (the symbol has no official interpretation). The chalice itself has long been a symbol of liberal religion, and indeed liberal Christianity (the Disciples of Christ also use a chalice as their denomination symbol). The flaming chalice was initially the logo of the Unitarian Service Committee during the Second World War. It was created by Austrian artist Hans Deutsch. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice.”
Nevertheless, other interpretations have been suggested, such as the chalice used by the followers of Czech Jan Hus, which was supposedly reverential of Eastern Orthodox traditions; although Hus’s early National Church was intrinsically an evangelical Protestant. In some agnostic historiographies the flaming chalice displayed a vague resemblance to a cross in some stylized representations, relying on the sepulchral traditions of the Hospitallers. Many Unitarian Universalist congregations light a chalice at the beginning of worship services. Other symbols include an off-center cross within a circle (a Universalist symbol associated with the Humiliati movement in the 1950s, a group of reformist, liturgically minded clergy seeking to revive Universalism).
Other symbols include a pair of open hands releasing a dove.
Services of worship
The service also includes hymn-singing, accompanied by organ, piano, or other available instruments, and possibly led by a song leader or choir. The most recent worship songbook published by the denomination, Singing the Journey contains 75 songs and is a supplement to the older Singing the Living Tradition which contains readings as well. Hymns typically sung in Unitarian Universalist services come from a variety of sources—traditional hymn tunes with new or adapted lyrics, spirituals, folk songs from various cultures, or original compositions by Unitarian Universalist musicians are just a few. Instrumental music is also a common feature of the typical worship service, including preludes, offertory music, postludes, or music for contemplation.
Pastoral elements of the service may include a time for sharing Joys and Sorrows/Concerns, where individuals in the congregation are invited to light a candle or say a few words about important events in their personal lives. Many also include a time of meditation or prayer, led by the minister or service leader, both spoken and silent. Responsive readings and stories for children are also typical. Many congregations also allow for a time at the end of the service, called “talk back”, where members of the congregation can respond to the sermon with their own insights and questions, or even disagree with the viewpoint expressed by the minister or invited speaker.
Many Unitarian Universalist congregations no longer observe the Christian symbols of baptism, communion, or confirmation, at least in their traditional forms or under their traditional names. Congregations that continue these practices under their more traditional names are often federated churches or members of the Council of Christian Churches within the Unitarian Universalist Association (CCCUUA), or may have active chapters associated with the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship or similar covenant groups. “Child dedications” often replace more traditional infant baptisms (such “dedications” are sometimes practiced even in “orthodox” Christian communities that do not baptize infants for theological reasons). Annual celebrations of Water Communion and Flower Communion may replace or supplement Christian-style communion (though many pluralist and Christian-oriented congregations may celebrate or otherwise make provisions for communion on Christian holy days). Confirmation may be replaced by a “Coming of Age” program, in which teenagers explore their individual religious identity, often developing their own credo. After they have completed exploring their spiritual beliefs, they write a speech about it which they then personally deliver to the congregation.
Historical politics of Unitarians and Universalists
In the 19th century, Unitarians and Universalists were active in abolitionism, the women’s movement, the temperance movement, and other social reform movements. The second women’s rights convention was held at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York. Additionally, four Presidents of the United States were Unitarians: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, and William Howard Taft.
Politics of Unitarian Universalists
Susan B. Anthony, a Unitarian and Quaker, was extremely influential in the women’s suffrage movement. Unitarian Universalists and Quakers still share many principles. It is therefore common to see Unitarian Universalists and Quakers working together.
Unitarian Universalists were and are still very involved in the fight to end racism in the United States. John Haynes Holmes, a Unitarian minister and social activist at The Community Church of New York—Unitarian Universalist were among the founders of both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), chairing the latter for a time. James J. Reeb, a minister at All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C. and a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was clubbed in Selma, Alabama on March 8, 1965, and died two days later of massive head trauma. Two weeks after his death, Viola Liuzzo, a Unitarian Universalist civil rights activist, was murdered by white supremacists after her participation in the protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights are best known for Bloody Sunday, which refers to March 7, 1965, the most violent of the three marches.
The past head of the Unitarian Universalist Association 2001–2009, William G. Sinkford, is African-American, making Unitarian Universalism one of the first traditionally white denominations to be headed by a member of a racial minority.
While political liberals make up a clear majority of Unitarian Universalists, the movement aspires to diversity, and officially welcomes congregants regardless of their political views. Politically conservative Unitarian Universalists point out that neither religious liberalism nor the Principles and Purposes of the UUA require liberal politics. Like the beliefs of Unitarian Universalists, politics are decided by individuals, not by congregations or the denomination.
Several congregations have undertaken a series of organizational, procedural and practical steps to become acknowledged as a “Welcoming Congregation”: a congregation which has taken specific steps to welcome and integrate gay, lesbian, bisexual & transgender (LGBT) members. Unitarian Universalist ministers perform same-sex unions and now same-sex marriages where legal (and sometimes when not, as a form of civil protest). On June 29, 1984, the Unitarian Universalists became the first major church “to approve religious blessings on homosexual unions.” Unitarian Universalists have been in the forefront of the work to make same-sex marriages legal in their local states and provinces, as well as on the national level. Gay men, bisexuals, and lesbians are also regularly ordained as ministers, and a number of gay, bisexual, and lesbian ministers have, themselves, now become legally married to their partners. In May 2004, Arlington Street Church, in Boston, Massachusetts, was the site of the first state-sanctioned same-sex marriage in the United States. The official stance of the UUA is for the legalization of same-sex marriage—”Standing on the Side of Love”. In 2004 UU minister Debra Haffner of The Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing published An Open Letter on Religious Leaders on Marriage Equality to affirm same-sex marriage from a multi-faith perspective. In December 2009, Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty signed the bill to legalize same-sex marriage for the District of Columbia in All Souls Church, Unitarian (Washington, D.C.)
Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness engages Unitarian Universalist ministers and other leaders to educate them on polyamory. At the 2015 UUA General Assembly, the Association’s non-discrimination rule was amended to include the category of “family and relationship structures”; the UUA has yet to take specific follow-up action on this, however.
Many congregations are heavily involved in projects and efforts aimed at supporting environmental causes and sustainability. These are often termed “seventh principle” activities because of the seventh principle quoted above.
Lack of formal creed
The lack of formal creed has been a cause for criticism among some who argue that Unitarian Universalism is thus without religious content. In May 2004, Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn ruled that Unitarian Universalism was not a “religion” because it “does not have one system of belief”, and stripped the Red River Unitarian Universalist Church in Denison, Texas, of its tax-exempt status. However, within weeks, Strayhorn reversed her decision.
Confusion with other groups
There are separate movements and organizations who hold to classical Unitarian or Christian universalist Christian theology and neither belong to the Unitarian Universalist Association nor consider themselves Unitarian Universalists. The American Unitarian Conference and the Christian Universalist Association are the two most significant organizations representing these theological beliefs today. Christians who hold these beliefs tend to consider themselves the true Unitarians or Universalists and heirs of the theological legacy of the original American Unitarian Association or Universalist Church of America, and they do not wish to be confused with Unitarian Universalists. The Unity Church is another denomination that is often confused with Unitarian Universalism.
Language of reverence
During the presidency of William Sinkford, debate within the Unitarian Universalist movement roiled over his call to return to or create an authentic Unitarian Universalist “language of reverence.” Sinkford suggested that Unitarian Universalists abandoned traditional religious language, thereby abandoning words with potential power to others who will then dictate their meanings in the public sphere. He suggested that Unitarian Universalists regain their proper seat at the interfaith table by making this language their own. Others saw this as part of an effort to return Unitarian Universalist congregations to more orthodox Christian worship patterns. Sinkford denied this, citing the words of Unitarian Universalist humanists as examples of what he means by the “language of reverence.” The growth of humanism in Unitarianism stemmed from a desire to reach a universal audience, educating atheists and agnostics in biblical literacy among the wider congregation of Unitarian Universalists, many of whom were born into families that lacked the rigour of a moral catechism. The debate included the publication of a book by the UUA’s Beacon Press written by former UUA President John Buehrens. The book is titled Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers, and Religious Liberals and is meant as a kind of handbook to be read alongside the Bible. It provides interpretative strategies, so that Unitarian Universalists (among others) might be able to engage in public debate about what the Bible says from a liberal religious perspective, rather than relinquishing to religious conservatives, and other more literal interpretations, all control over the book’s contents and significance in matters of public and civic import. Another important work by Buehrens, along with Forrest Church, is A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism, in which the authors explore the many sources of the living tradition of their chosen faith.
Borrowing from other religions
The “borrowing” of religious rituals from other faith traditions by Unitarian Universalists was discussed at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 2001 during a seminar titled “Cultural Appropriation: Reckless Borrowing or Appropriate Cultural Sharing” by the Religious Education Dept, UUA. Of particular discussion was the borrowing rituals and practices that are sacred to specific tribes or using spiritual practices without real context.
Internal controversy over the hiring of the UUA’s Southern Region Lead (a white man from outside the region over a Latina woman from within the region) led to resignations and apologies in 2017. UUA President Peter Morales, the denomination’s first Latino president, resigned amid criticism of his failure to address the diversity controversies. The three co-presidents who took over commissioned a “racism audit” to address white supremacy within the denomination.. In April 2018, the Washington Post reported that the UUA “in the past year has been asked to help resolve 15 congregational conflicts involving religious professionals of color”.
- Australia and New Zealand Unitarian Universalist Association (ANZUUA) is a Unitarian Universalist organization which serves as the organizing body for Unitarian and Universalist congregations in Australia and New Zealand.
- Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF) exists to serve Unitarian Universalists remote from any physical congregation.
- Canadian Unitarians for Social Justice (CUSJ) is a Canadian Unitarian Universalist social justice organization that is an associate member of the CUC.
- Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC) is the national body for Unitarian Universalist congregations in Canada. They were a member of the UUA up until July 2002.
- Canadian Unitarian Universalist Women’s Association (CUUWA) is a Canadian Unitarian Universalist women’s rights organization that is an associate member of the CUC.
- Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS) is an association of Unitarian Universalists who define themselves as Pagans or Neopagans.
- European Unitarian Universalists (EUU) is a network connecting Unitarian Universalists and English-speaking Unitarian Universalist fellowships in Europe.
- International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) represents Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist churches worldwide. The UUA and CUC are both members of this organization.
- Leather & Grace ~ Unitarian Universalists for BDSM Awareness (L&G) is an organization of Unitarian Universalists who identify with or support the BDSM/kink community.
- Promise the Children is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Promise the Children’s mission is to help Unitarian Universalists advocate for and with children and youth. Promise the Children is also an Independent Affiliate of the UUA
- Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is the largest association of Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist congregations in the world, and the most well-known. It operates mainly within the United States including the territory of Puerto Rico. A few Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist congregations in other countries, such as San Miguel de Allende (Mexico), Auckland (New Zealand), and a few others are also members of the UUA. Currently, the UUA represents 1,078 member congregations that collectively include more than 217,000 members.
- Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship (UUBF) is an association of Unitarian Universalists who define themselves as Buddhists.
- Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship (UUCF) is an association of Unitarian Universalists who define themselves as Christians.
- Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness is an association of Unitarian Universalists who support officially recognizing polyamory as a valid lifestyle.
- Unitarian Universalist Service Committee is a nonsectarian organization devoted to promoting human rights and social justice worldwide.
- Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU) is a term used within the UUA and CUC. YRUU was an organization at the North American continental level primarily run by youth, ranging in age from 14 to 20, with mentoring adult partners. The North American continental organization of YRUU ended in 2008, but the term is still used by certain active youth groups and conferences at the congregational and regional/district levels. It was created in 1981 and 1982, at two conferences, Common Ground 1 & 2. Common Ground was called to form a UUA-controlled replacement for Liberal Religious Youth (LRY), the Unitarian Universalist youth organization that preceded YRUU. LRY was dissolved by the UUA, and its assets absorbed by it.
- Unitarian Universalist Animal Ministry UUAM is a diverse group of Unitarian Universalists who aim to broaden the circle of compassion to include marginalized groups of people as well as non-human animals.
Number of members
As of December 2015, the UUA had 1,018 Unitarian Universalist member congregations in the United States and 1,043 Unitarian Universalist member congregations when including two congregations in the U.S. Virgin Islands, 19 in Canada, six in other countries, plus 28 multi-denominational member congregations: 17 in MA, four in IL, three in NH, two in VT, and one each in ME and D.C. Seven of the ten US states with the most congregations are also among the most populous states; the state with the most congregations and members is Massachusetts; Vermont is No. 1 relative to its total population. A map using 2010 U.S. Census data showing the relative number of congregations per 1 million people is posted here. And as of September 2014 there are 46 Unitarian Universalist congregations and emerging groups in Canada affiliated with the CUC. In 2015, there were 156,620 adult congregational members and 47,623 children enrolled in religious education programs.
In 1956, Sam Wells wrote, “Unitarians and Universalists are considering merger which would have total U.S. membership of 160,000 (500,000 in world)”. In 1965 Conkin wrote, “In 1961, at the time of the merger, membership [in the United States] was 104,821 in 651 congregations, and the joint membership soared to its historically highest level in the mid-1960s (an estimated 250,000) before falling sharply back in the 1970s […]”. According to the 2008 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations claimed 214,738 members in 2002.
Estimates from the 1990s put world membership between 120,000 and 600,000.
In the United States, the American Religious Identification Survey reported 629,000 members describing themselves as Unitarian Universalist in 2001, an increase from 502,000 reported in a similar survey in 1990. The highest concentrations are in New England and around Seattle, Washington.
The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and featuring a sample size of over 35,000, puts the proportion of American adults identifying as Unitarian Universalist at 0.3%.
The 2001 Canadian census done by Statistics Canada put Canadian Unitarians at 17,480, and the September 1, 2007 membership statistics from the CUC show they had at that time 5,150 official members. In 2015, the CUC reported 3,804 members.
Main article: List of Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist churches