A little bit of history
Modern Unitarians in the UK come together in gatherings and ceremonies, social justice groups and celebrations. We gather on Sundays and weekdays, in summer schools, spring festivals and candlelit winter carol services. We gather as pagans and Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Jewish Unitarians. We gather as people who believe in God all the time, as people who believe in God some of time and, for some Unitarians, people who believe in God not at all. What connects us is a commitment to personal freedom and dignity, the worth and value of all people, social justice and religious freedom and the belief that together we can move towards a kinder, greener, more inclusively loving, fairer world.
In England Unitarians came together in the 17th century as people of dissent. We were not alone. It was time of religious turmoil when new communities came into being in order to think for themselves and to challenge the creeds and regulations of the established church. Unitarians were committed to the humanity of Jesus rather than his divinity, a commitment often seen as ‘anti-Trinitarian’ but which can also be seen as putting a commitment to human flourishing in this world, ecology and care for the world we have inherited, at the centre of religious thinking. Over the following century, as society changed, cities grew and especially as science offered new explanations for human being, Unitarians developed a network of spiritual communities that gave room to new philosophical, scientific and social ideas. Strongly committed to social responsibility, by the 19th century they had become a movement that stood up for liberal and progressive causes and education. Unitarians supported the French Revolution, founded newspapers such as The Manchester Guardian as well as their own liberal progressive schools and colleges, worked to abolish slavery, and, from the start of the 19th century, were committed to equal rights for women and men.
This is only part of the story. Modern international Unitarianism brings many strands together. In other parts of Europe Unitarianism began in different contexts and cultures. There are powerful communities of Unitarians in Transylvania, for instance, with their own stories of origin. In the United States, where dissenters travelled in the 17th century in order to practice religious freedom, Unitarians combined with Universalists in the 1960s, to produce Unitarian Universalism. World wide Unitarians are like siblings and cousins, a big, diverse and noisy family, all committed to religious and personal freedom and social change.
While the roots of Unitarianism began in the Christian church, its travels in the 19th century included conversations with other religions. Unitarians were among the first to translate the Buddhist scriptures, the sutras, for instance, and throughout the history of the Unitarian movement it has been fed and nourished by contact with wisdom traditions of many kinds. That continues today. One of our members, Lori Winters, likes to put it this way. She says that we ‘co-create religion’. It’s a process, and it’s one that keeps on moving.
Today this has resulted in a relatively small, powerful, world-wide movement identified by values rather than a set of beliefs, and which is committed to making connections between individual flourishing and community well being, embracing the growth of the human spirit as part of that journey. We believe that we are more than the sum of our parts; that we are responsible for the future of the world in which we live, and that to live fully, human spiritual nourishment is central to our being human.
We value difference. We do not all need to agree but we can all come to the table and we all deserve to be fed. We often say at the start of a gathering for worship, ‘ Whoever you are, wherever you come from, whoever you love and whatever it is you are searching for, you are welcome here’. May it be so.
For a more in-depth description of modern Unitarians, check out the BBC's pages on Unitarianism.