An Introduction to the Unitarian and Universalist Traditions by Andrea Greenwood and Mark W. Harris. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK, 2011. As a Quaker active with the Quaker Universalist Fellowship, I was drawn to review this book because I wanted to learn more about the history of a movement that has much in common with Quakerism. The authors provide a rich and multifaceted history of Unitarianism and Universalism, which spans five centuries and several continents. There are chapters on worship, congregational polity, sources of faith, art, architecture, education and social justice. I found the book fascinating, though at times too detailed. Although the authors don’t mention Quakers, I was also intrigued by the parallels (as well as the differences) between these two faith traditions.
Like the Quakers, Universalists were persecuted for their unorthodox views about Christianity. Miguel Severus (1511 –1553), considered one of first Unitarians, was a brilliant Spanish Catholic theologian, physician, cartographer, and humanist who questioned (among other things) the idea of the trinity, which is not found in the Bible. His books were banned by the Catholic Church, and he was burned at the stake for his non-Trinitarian views by the Calvinists in Geneva. Other Unitarians had to flee their countries to escape a similar fate.
This book explores the history of both Unitarianism and Universalism, which clashed and then became so interwoven that they eventually merged in 1961.
Unitarianism began as an offshoot of Christianity, but currently only around 20% of UUs identify themselves as Christian. Depending on how the question is worded, 50-80% of British Friends consider themselves Christian (according to a recent study called The Quaker Condition: The Sociology of a Liberal Religion edited by Pink Dandelion and Peter Collins), although Quaker theological views would be considered unorthodox by most mainstream Christians. Most liberal Friends professing to be “Christian” would agree with the UUs that Jesus was a great teacher, not God or the Son of God. World-wide, however, the vast majority of Friends are Evangelicals with a distinctly conservative, if not fundamentalist theology.
Like Quakerism, Unitarian Universalism (UU) is a “creedless faith” with a strong ethical basis. Many Unitarians see themselves as following the teachings of Jesus rather than “believing” in his divinity or in miracles. Severus wrote these memorable lines: “most wicked people believe in Christ, but no wicked person loved Christ…. There is nothing that makes us more like God than love because God is love… Loving, not believing, is a property of divine nature” (p. 2). Along with the importance of love and compassion, UUs strongly believe strongly in freedom of conscience and in reason as a guide to ethical conduct.
Like the Quakers, the UUs are very diverse in their expression of faith, especially globally. Unitarians can be found in 29 countries, including some where you’d least expect to find them. Because a king of Transylvania converted to Unitarianism in the 16th century, there is an indigenous Unitarian church in Kolozsvar, Romania, that is 500 years old. One of the important features of this book is its emphasis on the global aspects of Unitarianism. The authors examine the growth of Unitarianism in Asia and its complex relationship to colonialism in India and the Philippines.
They also show connections between New England Unitarianism and their counterparts in England and even in Poland, where radicals such as Laelius Socinus (1525-1562) were drawn to the movement.
Early Quakers like Barclay rejected the “Socinian error” of thinking that the Inward Light was “natural” instead of “supernatural,” a gift of grace from God. But Quaker views on the trinity had affinities with those of the Unitarians. As William Penn noted:
Before I conclude this head, it is requisite that I should inform thee, reader, concerning the origin of the Trinitarian doctrine: Thou mayest assure thyself, it is not from the Scriptures, nor reason, since so expressly repugnant; although all broachers of their own inventions strongly endeavour to reconcile them with the holy record. Know then, my friend, it was born about three hundred years after the ancient gospel was declared; it was conceived in ignorance, brought forth and maintained by cruelty.
Given the many theological parallels between UUs and Quakers, I was a little disappointed that no mention of Quakerism was made in this book, even though UUs and Quakers have collaborated in many ways, especially when it comes to social issues. Unitarians were active in the anti-slavery movement and many were pacifists. The vast majority of early suffragists were Unitarians and Quakers since both faiths encouraged the ministry of women. Susan B. Anthony began her life as a Quaker and became a Unitarian because of her “infidel” views.
Quakers and Unitarians were also both leaders in the rise of liberal Christianity and of the interfaith movement. The authors provide a thoughtful analysis of the “Parliament of the World’s Religions,” in which Quakers, Universalists and Unitarians took part. Like the Orthodox and Hicksite branches of Quakers, the Unitarians and the Univeralists had separate delegations to this historic gathering that took place at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and was the beginning of the modern interfaith movement. The Parliament also helped foster the rise of liberal Christianity and the ecumenical movement. In 1907 a Unitarian named Charles Wendte (1844-1932) helped coordinate the Federation of Religious Liberals, an organization that drew together Quakers, Reform Jews, Unitarians and Universalists along with other denominations. (Such ecumenical gatherings had been taking place on a small scale at the Race Street Meetinghouse in Philadelphia for some time.) During its heyday, which lasted until the 1930s, as many 1,000 religious leaders attended gatherings of the Federation of Religious Liberals and helped lay the groundwork for the World Council of Churches.
The book ends with a grim reminder that liberalism is under attack by those who fear its openness to new ideas. The authors write:
On July 27, 2008 a man fired into the congregation of the Tennesse Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, believing he was getting rid of the enemy. “I hate liberals and what they are doing to this country,” he said. “We can’t defeat them at the ballot box. They’re like termites. They only way you can get rid of them is to kill them in the streets.” Yet, as the foster child of one of the murdered parishioners said, the gunman had “killed the man who would have tried hardest to help him.”
The response of this congregation was not to vilify their assailant, but to care for those who were hurt. The Fire Chief who was a first responder to this attack was very impressed and said: “The Unitarian Church’s spiritual commitment made a big difference in how the congregation responded…. Sometimes in this job you get burned out… For me it made a big difference to see people who care.”
I recommend this book to anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of Unitarian Universalism and the rise of liberal religion. As Quakers, we can learn much from our Unitarian friends, and vice versa.