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A Liberal Protestant sect which holds as it distinctive tenet the belief in a uni-personal instead of a tri-personal God.

Name and doctrine

In its general sense the name designates all disbelievers in the Trinity, whether Christian or non-Christian; in its present specific use it is applied to that organized form of Christianity which lays emphasis on the unity of the personality of God. The term seems to have originated about 1570, was used in a decree of the Diet held in 1600 at Lecsfalva in Transylvania, and received official ecclesiastic sanction in 1638. It supplanted the various designations of anti-Trinitarians, Arians, Racovians, and Socinians. In England the name first appears in 1682. It became frequent in the United States from 1815, although it was received unfavourably by some anti-Trinitarians, and omitted in their official titles by some congregations whose religious position it defined. The explanation of this opposition is to be found in the reluctance of the parties concerned to lay stress on any doctrinal affirmation. Historical associations account for the name Presbyerians, frequently applied to Unitarians in the British Isles, and Unitarian Congregationalists, used in the United States. No definite standard of belief is recognized in the denomination and no doctrinal tests are laid down as a condition of fellowship. The co-operation of all persons desirous of advancing the interests of "pure" (i.e. undogmatic, practical) Christianity is welcomed in the Unitarian body.

In granting this co-operation each member enjoys complete freedom in his individual religious opinions, and no set of doctrinal propositions could be framed on which all Unitarians would agree. The bond of union between them consists more in their anti-dogmatic tendency than in uniformity of belief. The authority of the Bible is in some degree retained; but its contents are either admitted or repudiated according as they find favor before the supreme, and in this case, exacting tribunal of individual reason. Jesus Christ is considered subordinate to the Father and, although the epithet Divine is in a loose sense not infrequently applied to Him, He is in the estimation of many an extraordinarily endowed and powerful but still a human religious leader. He is a teacher to be followed, not a God to be worshipped. His Passion and Death are an inspiration and an example to His disciples, not an effective and vicarious atonement for the sins of men. He is the great exemplar which we ought to copy in order to perfect our union with God gradually. This teaching concerning the mission of Jesus Christ is but the logical complement of the Unitarian denial of the Fall of Man and with similar consistency leads to the suppression of the sacraments. Two of these (baptism and Eucharist) are indeed retained, but their grace-conferring power is denied and their reception declared unnecessary. Baptism is administered to children (rarely to adults) more for sentimental reasons and purposes for edification than from the persuasion of the spiritual results produced in the soul of the recipient. The Eucharist, far from being considered as sacrificial, is looked upon as a merely memorial service. The fond hope of universal salvation is entertained by the majority of the denomination.

In short, present-day Unitarianism is hardly more than natural religion, and exhibits in some of its members a pronounced tendency towards Pantheistic speculation. The Church polity in England and America is strictly congregational; each individual congregation manages, without superior control, all its affairs, calls and discharges its minister, and is the final judge of the religious views expressed in its pulpit. In Transylvania the Church government is exercised by a bishop who resides at Kolozsvár (Klausenburg) and is assisted by a consistory. The episcopal title which he bears does not imply special consecration but merely designates the office of an ecclesiatical supervisor.


In Europe

The first church holding Unitarian tenets was founded in Poland during the reign of Sigismund II (1548-72). The year 1568 saw the establishment and official recognition of such congregations in Transylvania. While in the former country Unitarianism was completely supressed in 1660, in the latter it has, despite temporary persecution, maintained itself. The Transylvanian Church is of Socinian origin but has suppressed the worship of Jesus Christ, thus casting off what chiefly differentiated it from strict Unitarianism. Its present name is the Hungarian Unitarian Church, although comparatively few of its members reside in Hungary proper.

In England the organization of Unitarianism was effected at a much later date. The first attempt at establishing a congregation was made by John Biddle (1615-62), but the organization did not last its author. More permanency attended the efforts of Theophilus Lindsey (1723-1808). In 1773 he seceded from the Anglican Communion, organized the following year a Unitarian congregation in London, and in 1778 built the Essex Street chapel. About the same time anti-Trinitarian views were spread by the scientist Joseph Priestly, pastor of a congregation at Leeds (1768-80) and later at Birmingham. His work in the latter place was cut short by a popular uprising in 1791, and three years later he emigrated to America. Others, among them Thomas Belsham (1750-1829) and Lant Carpenter (1780-1840), continued to propagate Unitarianism in England. Legal restrictions were still in vigour, however, against persons denying the doctrine of the Trinity and hampered their work. But in 1813 most of these disabilities were removed, and in 1844 complete liberty was obtained, despite opposition, by the Dissenters' Chapels Act, sometimes called the Unitarian Charter. As early as 1825 English Unitarians had concluded a union with their co-religionists abroad under the name of British and Foreign Unitarian Association. This society disseminated religious literature and promoted the interests of the sect. The prospects of this activity were brightened by the appearance of a capable exponent of Unitarian views, Dr. James Martineau (1805-1900). After a successful resistance to early opposition, his personality dominated English Unitariansm for an extended period. His writings exercised a potent influence far beyond England, and still continue to advance the cause of Liberal Christianity. His disciples have taken up his work and outstripped their master in his radical views.

Scotland never proved a fruitful soil for Unitarian propaganda. A congregation was organized in 1776 in Edinburgh and the Scottish Unitarian Association was formed in 1813; but progress in that country has been insignificant and there are very few congregations there. In Ireland Unitarianism is held chiefly in the North where it has found adherants among the Presbyterians. It may not inappropriately be considered a self-governing branch of the Presbyterian body. Some Unitarian congregations are to be found also in the British colonies, notably Australia and Canada, and among the French Protestants a comparatively large number are Unitarian in view, though not in name.


About the middle of the eighteenth century Unitarian opinions gained favor among New England Congregationalists. They were propagated by Jonathan Mayhew (1720-1766), for nineteen years pastor of the West Church at Boston, and Charles Chauncey (1705-87), in the same city. The first organized church was King's Chapel, Boston, when the congregation, until then Episcopal, removed in 1785 all references to the Trinity from the Book of Common Prayer and in 1787 assumed an independent existence. Congregations were also organized at Portland and Saco (Maine) in 1792, and in 1794 Joseph Priestly began his propaganda in Pennsylvania. It was particularly in New England, however, that the movement gained ground. The appointment in 1805 of the Rev. Henry Ware to the Hollis chair of divinity at Harvard College and the nomination within the next two years of four other Liberal candidates to important professorships in the same institution, brought that seat of learning under considerable Unitarian influence. Its school of divinity was endowed and organized by the denomination in 1817 and remained under its control until 1878, when it became nondenominational. While the diffusion of Unitarian ideas was comparatively rapid the organization of churches was retarded by the reluctance of many to separate from the Congregationalist communities of which they were members. Before the separation was effected a heated controversy was waged between the liberal and conservative wings of Congregationalism. Matters came to a head in 1819 when the Rev. William Ellery Channing, in a sermon preached at Baltimore at the installation of the Rev. Jared Sparks, advocated the public acknowledgement by the liberal members and congregations of their Unitarian beliefs. This discourse proved decisive, and the parties concerned immediately proceeded to organize themselves independently. Frm this date until his death in 1842, Channing was the acknowledged leader of the denomination. Under his auspices the American Unitarian Association was founded at Boston in 1825 for the promotion of Unitarian interests.

After his death the radical element became predominant under the direction of Theodore Parker (1810-60), who succeeded him in influence. The authority of the Bible acknowledged by the old school was, under Parker, largely sacrificed to the principles of destructive criticism, and Unitarianism drifted rapidly into Rationalistic speculation. The activity of Channing and Parker was supplemented by the more general and far-reaching influence of the Unitarian poet-philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82). Although he resigned his charge of the Second Congregational Church at Boston after a short period (1829-32), he continued to preach for many years and his popularity as a writer and lecturer could not but lend additional prestige to the advanced religious views which he defended. The interests of the Unitarian propaganda were also served by the foundation of the Western Conference of Unitarians in 1852 and that of the National Unitarian Conference in 1865. Of a more universal character was the International Council of Unitarians and other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workers, which was organized at Boston in 1900. It held sessions in London (1901), Amsterdam (1903), Geneva (1905), Boston (1907), and Berlin (1910). At the last-mentioned convention the official title was changed to International Congress of Free Christians and Other Religious Liberals. The purpose remains the same, namely: "to open communication with those in all lands who are striving to unite pure religion and perfect liberty and to increase fellowship and co-operation among them."

Propaganda; educational institutions; statistics

The Unitarian body sent a missionary to India in 1855, and since 1887 has carried on an active propaganda in Japan; however, its missionary efforts in foreign languages, viewed in the aggregate, have not been considerable. In accordance with its general indifferent attitude toward dogma, its endeavours to advance the cause of Christianity without emphasizing its own specific tenets, and its members have in the past contributed to the missionary funds of other denominations. Their efforts, moreover, are more concerned with the dissemination of literature among civilized nations than with the sending of missionaries to non-Christian lands. This method of gaining adherants has proved successful, partly owing to the Liberal, Rationalistic, and excessively individualistic tendency of the present age, but largely also to the number of eminent men and capable writers who have adhered to or defended Unitarian doctrines. Financial resources for propagandist purposes were provided for by the rich Jamaica planter, Robert Hibbert (1770-1849), through the creation of the fund which bears his name. Out of it grew the well-known Hibbert Lectures, and the more recent "Hibbert Journal". An organization unique in its character is the Post Office Mission which, by means of correspondence and the distribution of books and periodicals, seeks to bring courage to the despondent and joy to the suffering.

The Church has made no determined effort to organize benevolent institutions of its own. A considerable number of the Unitarian ministry (to which women are admitted) receive their training in the educational institutions of other sects. The Church, however, founded the following special schools for this purpose: in Hungary, the Unitarian College at Kolozsvár; in England and Wales, the Unitarian Home Missionary College at Manchester; the Manchester College at Oxford; the Presbyterian College at Carmarthen; in America, the Harvard Divinity School at Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Meadville Theological School at Meadville, Pennsylvania This institution was later moved to Chicago, Illinos, and became known as the Meadville Lombard Theological School.; and the Pacific Unitarian School (later renamed the Starr King School for the Ministry) at Berkelely, California. In the United States the denomination maintains, besides these training-schools for the ministry, seven academies situated, but one exception, in the New England States. The number of persons holding Unitarian views cannot be determined, even approximately; for many undoubtedly reject the doctrine of the Three Divine Persons and retain the belief in a uni-personal Godhead without ever affiliating with the Church. Among these must be reckoned not only a large number of Liberal theologians and advanced critics, but also some religious denominations which, either in their entirety, as the Hicksite Friends, or at least in many of their members, as the Unitarian-Universalists, are distinctly anti-Trinitarian. According to the World Almanac, in 1990 the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association numbered 173,000 in the United States. A 2007 Pew Forum survey placed that number at 340,000.


On doctrine consult MARTINEAU, CHANNING and the other Unitarian writers mentioned above; HEDGE, Reason in Religion (Boston, 1865); CLARKE Essentials and Non-Essentials in Religion; IDEM; Manuel of Unitarian Belief (Boston, 1884); ALLEN, Our Liberal Movement in Theology (Boston, 1882); BONET-MAURY, tr. HALL, Early Sources of English Unitarian Christianity (London, 1884); For a Catholic point of view, see KOHLMANN, Unitarianism, theologically and philosopically considered (Washington, 1821).

About this page

APA citation. Weber, N. (1912). Unitarians. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Weber, Nicholas. "Unitarians." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Scott Wells.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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