325 AD–1818: The Roots of Our Liberal Faith

​Introduction

 

Unitarians and Universalists have always been heretics, which comes from the Greek word meaning “to choose.”

 

Although both denominations sprang from Christianity, they evolved because early reformers challenged authorities who imposed rules for religious belief and purported to speak for God.

 

Unitarianism grew out of the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation in 16th-century Europe. The Reformation was a widespread revolt against the totalitarian control of the Roman Catholic Church and its practices for which there was no source in the Bible. Leaders of the Radical Reformation went further, declaring that religion was a matter of individual conviction that could not be forced on anyone. Many of the earliest Unitarians were scientists, which no doubt informed their beliefs and their world views.

 

Universalism developed in 18th-century America as a protest against the Calvinist idea that some people were predestined by God to be spared eternal damnation and that only those who lived a strictly moral life could be among them. Universalists believed that God loves everyone, that dignity and worth are innate in all people and that lasting truth can be found in all religions.

 

As simple as those ideas sound, such liberal religious thinkers were often persecuted, exiled and brutally killed for their beliefs.

Some key events in that history:

325 – Arius (256–336), a priest in Alexandria, Egypt, was condemned as a heretic and exiled by the First Council of Nicea for teaching a Nontrinitarian doctrine. The Trinitarian view rejected by Arius was that God was one being in three persons: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. However, Arius and his followers, who were known as Arians, believed that although Jesus was the Son of God, he was not co-eternal with God, but was created by God, and was therefore subordinate to God. In an attempt to settle the Arian Controversy, the Council of Nicaea adopted the Nicene Creed in 325 AD, which affirms the Holy Trinity and the co-eternal, co-essential divinity of Jesus. The Nicene Creed has been used as an important statement of belief ever since in Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christian churches.

Greek Icon showing the First Council of Nicea with the condemned Arius at the bottom.

​​1517 – The Protestant Reformation began with the posting by Martin Luther of his “Ninety-five Theses” on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther challenged the authority of the Catholic Church and attacked its corrupt practices, particularly the selling of indulgences (a payment to the Church that supposedly purchased an exemption from punishment for sins). During the Reformation, Christianity split into into different “confessions”—Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed and Anabaptist, among others. Unitarianism grew out of the “Radical Reformation,” as did the Amish, Hutterite and Mennonite denominations.

 

1539 – Katarzyna Weiglowa (1460–1539), sometimes written as Katherine Weigel or Vogel, was burned at the stake in Kraków, Poland, for professing the unity of God and denying the Trinity. Katarzyna Weiglowa was a Roman Catholic woman from the Kingdom of Poland who at the age of 70 was imprisoned under the charge of heresy and of rejecting the notion of the Holy Trinity. She spent 10 years in prison before being burnt alive. Even on the stake, she refused to renounce her faith, which she confessed loudly until the end.  

 

1553 – Miguel Serveto (Servetus) (1509–1553) was burned at the stake by Calvin for preaching and writing against the doctrine of the Trinity. Servetus, who was martyred in the Reformation for his criticism of the doctrine of the anti-trinitarian views and his opposition to infant baptism, was a Spanish theologian and scientist. He was versed in many scholarly subjects including medicine, pharmacology, astronomy, meteorology, mathematics, translation, poetry and the scholarly study of the Bible in its original languages. He is renowned in the history of several of these fields, particularly medicine; he was the first to describe the circulation of the blood in his writings. In 1553, he published Christianismi Restitutio, which rejected Calvinism and Trinitarianism. He was prosecuted for heresy and burned alive in Geneva.

 

1568 – King János Zsigmond (John Sigismund) of Transylvania issued the Edict of Torda, a decree of religious tolerance. When the Radical Reformation reached Transylvania (which was then part of Hungary), the reigning monarch, János Zsigmond, supported a series of theological debates during the 1560s. He was encouraged by his court physician, Giorgio Biandrata, who knew the anti-trinitarian writings of Miguel Serveto. After a decade of theological debate, the Diet of Torda concluded its theological explorations, and issued a statement of religious tolerance in 1568: “In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them, for their souls would not be satisfied…No one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone.”

 

Ferenc Dávid speaking at the 1568 session of the Transylvanian Diet, painting by Aladár Körösfői Kriesch, 1896.

1579 – Ferenc Dávid, who preached that each person’s religious beliefs should be based on the promptings of his or her conscience, died in prison in Transylvania. Dávid had been court preacher to the Unitarian king János Zsigmond. When a Catholic king came to the throne and initiated the persecution of Unitarians, Dávid became more radical in his preaching, declaring that Jesus should not be worshiped. He was brought to trial as a blasphemous innovator and condemned to life in prison.

 

1579 – Fausto Sozzini (Faustus Socinus) (1539–1604) brought Unitarianism to Poland. He taught that Jesus, although without sin, was a fully human man, who by his suffering taught humans how to bear their own sufferings. Fausto was the nephew of another influential anti-trinitarian reformer, Lelio Sozzini. Their followers were known as Socinians.

 

1734 – The First Great Awakening, a religious revival movement, began in the United States and Britain. It aroused new interest in religion, stirred religious enthusiasm and encouraged reactionary dogmatism. The polarization of liberal and conservative Christians was exacerbated.

 

1779 – Thomas Jefferson first introduced his Statute of Religious Freedom into the Virginia House of Delegates. Passed by Virginia in 1786, it set the example for the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the US Constitution in 1787, enshrining freedom of conscience as a basic right of US citizens.

 

1785 – King’s Chapel in Boston, an Anglican congregation established in 1686, revised its Book of Common Prayer to remove all references to Jesus as God. The congregation had become increasingly liberal, and included many anti-trinitarians.

 

1794 – Joseph Priestley, an English clergyman and scientist, emigrated to America and established a Unitarian church in Philadelphia. He had been violently attacked in Britain for his preaching against the doctrine of the Trinity.

1803 – “The Unitarian Controversy” erupted between liberals and conservatives within the Congregational Church over the appointment of the next Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. Henry Ware, the liberal Unitarian candidate, was eventually selected in 1805. This was a defining moment in the increasing schism that resulted in the Unitarians separating from the Congregationalists and creating their own denomination.

Henry Ware

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