By Dolores Smyth, Crosswalk.com
What is Universalism?
Universalism is a liberal, religious tradition that teaches that every person will be saved, regardless of repentance. Originally rooted in Christianity, Universalism developed in opposition to the theological doctrine of predestination, or the belief that only a portion of humanity would be saved. Universalism insists that a loving God would not reward only a segment of humanity with salvation and condemn the rest to eternal damnation.
Instead, Universalists argue that all people are destined for salvation, and that if anyone were to be punished in the afterlife, such punishment would be temporary. This “temporary punishment” would consist of a cleansing period during which souls would be purified and prepared to spend eternity in the presence of God. As such, at the completion of this cleansing period, people in hell would be purged of all their sins, reconciled with God, and allowed entry into heaven. Given this restorative view of punishment in the afterlife, Universalism rejects the existence of an eternal hell.
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Early History of Universalism
Traces of Universalism can be seen throughout Christian history, most notably in the writings of the third-century Christian theologian Origen, who taught that all of humanity would be universally restored to God. Universalism reemerged in Europe during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Universalism went on to grow in the United States as an organized religion in the 18th century with the establishment of the Universalist Church of America in 1793.
As the doctrine of universal salvation spread, Universalists often were met with opposition from other Christian denominations that believed that following Universalist teachings would lead to immorality.
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From its start as an organized movement, Universalism has embraced an array of theological beliefs and, as such, never promulgated a creed or statement of faith. General beliefs supported by Universalists are liberalism, the inherent dignity of humans, freedom of individual interpretation, diversity, and a democratic approach to theological and church issues.
Universalism also advocates humanism by eschewing reliance on divine understanding and, instead, stressing the use of reason when interpreting religion. As to its views on Jesus, Universalism generally rejects the divinity of Jesus and, instead, considers Jesus to have been a great man whose life and teachings are worthy of imitation.
Additionally, Universalists reject the miraculous aspects of traditional Christianity as running contrary to modern knowledge.
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American Universalists Become Influenced by Unitarianism
By the 19th century, the greatest leader of the American Universalist movement was Hosea Ballou, an influential preacher whose Treatise on Atonement “converted most Universalist ministers to a Unitarian view of God…” Established in 1825, the American Unitarian Association was a liberal, religious association that centered on the singular essence—or unity—of God; hence the name “Unitarian.”
In emphasizing God’s oneness, Unitarianism denies the existence of the Holy Trinity, which holds that three persons unite to form one God: God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. This belief in the oneness of God also, necessarily, denies the divinity of Jesus.
Unitarianism also rejects the concept of eternal punishment and original sin, instead teaching a “positive view of human nature” and the potential in everyone to make themselves and society better.
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Similarities and Differences
Unitarianism appealed to Universalists because of the common ground shared by the two groups. Specifically, both denominations:
1. Arose from the Protestant Reformation, had roots in England, and emerged in America in the 18th century;
2. Were based on liberal, unstructured beliefs with no formal creed or declaration of theological tenets;
3. Encouraged freedom of individual interpretation;
4. Accommodated a diverse understanding of God; and
5. Embraced humanism by “affirm[ing] the findings of science” and stressing an individual’s ability to problem-solve through reason versus adherence to divine understanding.
Noticing the similarities between the Universalist and Unitarian denominations, an American Universalist and Unitarian minister summarized their differences by stating simply that: “Universalists believe that God is too good to damn people, and the Unitarians believe that people are too good to be damned by God.”
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The Merger of the Universalist and Unitarian Movements
Given the similarities between Universalism and Unitarianism, it became clear to their congregation members that the two small, liberal institutions could grow stronger if they merged. As such, in 1961, the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America merged to form the religious organization known as the Unitarian Universalist Association (the “UUA”).
In the tradition of its two predecessor organizations, the UUA is a liberal, religious association of self-governing Unitarian Universalist congregations. Unitarian Universalism has no creed or specific theological doctrine. Instead, members are encouraged to follow the dictates of their conscience in formulating their religious beliefs. In addition, membership in the UUA is broadly inclusive, consisting of atheists, agnostics, humanists, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and more.
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Despite this lack of shared theological views among its members, Unitarian Universalist congregations follow seven guiding—but non-binding—“Principles,” as well as six “Sources” of wisdom and spirituality. According to UUA.org, the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism are:
- “The Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Person” Unitarian Universalists believe in each person’s potential to do good, and assert that “[j]ust to live is holy”;
- “Justice, Equity, and Compassion in Human Relations” This “collective responsibility” to treat others justly, equitably, and compassionately points believers to something beyond the inherent worth and dignity of each person and toward the larger community;
- “Acceptance of One Another and Encouragement to Spiritual Growth in Our Congregations” This “spiritual growth” is described not as “a vertical ascent to heaven,” but as “growth in every dimension at once”;
- “A Free and Responsible Search for Truth and Meaning” As a religious institution, the UUA has “left open the questions of what truth and meaning are, acknowledging that mindful people will, in every age, discover new insights”;
- “The Right of Conscience and the Use of the Democratic Process within Our Congregations and in Society at Large” The UUA notes that a “democratic process requires trust in the development of each individual conscience” and a believer’s “commitment to cultivate [his or her] own conscience”;
- “The Goal of World Community with Peace, Liberty, and Justice for All.” The UUA explains that although this may seem like an “extravagant” goal, believers will improve themselves and the world by aiming for it; and
- “Respect for the Interdependent Web of All Existence of Which We Are a Part” The UUA defines the “interdependent web of all existence” as a source of meaning “expressed as the spirit of life, the ground of all being, the oneness of all existence, the community-forming power, the process of life, the creative force, [and] even God…”
The UUA insists that these seven Principles are moral guides, not formal doctrine that UUA members must adhere to.
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Aside from these seven Principles that serve as moral guides, the UUA promotes a “living tradition” based on six Sources. These six Sources are:
- “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.”
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"Although Unitarianism and Universalism both have Christian roots, Unitarian Universalists hold views that run counter to the core beliefs of mainstream Christianity."
Unitarian Universalists pride themselves in serving as a strong voice for social justice and liberal religion. The denomination promotes gender equality and racial and cultural diversity. It also promotes sexual diversity and has affirmed the rights of bisexuals, gays, lesbians, and transgender people, including ordaining gay and lesbian clergy and affirming same-sex marriage.
Although Unitarianism and Universalism both have Christian roots, Unitarian Universalists hold views that run counter to the core beliefs of mainstream Christianity. In particular, Unitarian Universalists have diverse views about Jesus, with some seeing Him as a good moral example to follow, and others seeing Him as a prophetic leader and an instrument of the divine who may or may not have been the Son of God and may or may not have resurrected.
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Beliefs about Salvation
As to salvation, Unitarian Universalists do not believe in either original sin or hell. Some members believe in “universal salvation”and humanity’s ultimate unification with God. In practice, however, the question of “[s]alvation receives little attention and, [and] when it does, it is often construed as wholeness and health in this life, rather than a state attained after death.”
Beliefs about the Bible
Regarding the Bible, Unitarian Universalists see it as a “rich resource of stories and wisdom,” but not as authoritative on its own. As to worship services, Unitarian Universalist services “vary by congregation.” Some congregations offer contemporary and high-tech worship services, while others offer more traditional services. Lively music may be played at one congregation’s services, while another may feature long periods of meditation. Sermons may be delivered by a minister, a guest speaker, or a congregation member.
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Unitarian Universalist congregations are recognized by their institution’s primary symbol—a flaming chalice (a cup with a stem and foot). During gatherings and worship services, congregation members light a chalice to connote such images as: “the warmth of community,” “the light of reason,” and “the flame of hope.”
According to 2018 data published by the UUA, the UUA has approximately 155,000 members in 1,035 churches worldwide.
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Present-Day Unmerged Universalist and Unitarian Groups
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of Universalist and Unitarian groups in America, albeit on a smaller scale than the UUA’s membership. Christian Universalists in particular point out that “early American Universalists embraced a biblical Christian version of universalism,” which was abandoned when Universalists “merged with the Unitarian denomination.” Likewise, Unitarianism as a stand-alone theology also continues in the United States. Some Unitarian congregations identify with Unitarianism’s historic Christian beliefs while others range in their lesser attachment to Christian principles.
Dolores Smyth is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous parenting and faith publications. A perfect day for her includes running, reading, and spending time with her husband and three young kids. Find her on Twitter @LolaWordSmyth.
This article is part of our Denomination Series listing historical facts and theological information about different factions within and from the Christian religion. We provide these articles to help you understand the distinctions between denominations including origin, leadership, doctrine, and beliefs. Explore the various characteristics of different denominations from our list below!
Catholic Church: History, Tradition & Beliefs
Jehovah's Witnesses & Their Beliefs
Mormons: The Church of Latter Day Saints & Their Beliefs
Baptist Church: History & Beliefs
Presbyterians: History & Beliefs
Mennonites & Their Beliefs
United Methodist Church: History & Beliefs
Seventh-Day Adventists & Their Beliefs
The Pentecostal Church: History & Beliefs
Lutheran History & Beliefs
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