What Is Unitarian Universalism? Tenets, Practices, and History
A Unitarian Universalist Chalice
What is Unitarian Universalism?
Unitarian Universalism (called UU for short) became a recognized religion in 1961 when the Christian Unitarian and Universalist denominations merged. Although it has its roots in Christianity and some UUs (as members call themselves) consider themselves to be Christian, it is closer to secular humanism than to traditional religions.
UU is sometimes described as “the religion that puts its faith in you.” There is no doctrine, creed, or dogma. There are no holy scriptures; there are no required beliefs or practices. Members are free to believe in God or not.
Although most consider themselves to be simply UU, some prefer a hyphenated designation (e.g., Christian-UU, Jewish--UU, etc.) People are comfortable with this because all religious faiths (and no faith) are respected in UU congregations.
UU is a liberal religion. Its members believe foremost in love and community. It is a small group--fewer that 200,000 members and fewer than 1000 congregations in the United States.
Some congregations do not call themselves a “church” so as to separate themselves from traditional Christian churches; instead, they refer to themselves as a “fellowship” or a “society.”
The symbol of UU is a chalice inside a double circle. One of the two rings symbolizes Unitarianism and the other Universalism.
Sculpture at University Unitarian Universalist Society, Orlando FL
What Are the Beliefs of Unitarian Universalists?
Some people think that UUs can believe anything. This is usually said derisively.
It is partly true since they are not required to adhere to any particular belief about God or dogma. However, there are seven principles that UUs commit to live by when they join a congregation. These seven principles express the moral values of UU and guide members in their lives.
This is the list of principles. The principles are simplified for young children, and these simplified statements are shown beneath each principle.
(1) The inherent worth and dignity of every person.
We believe that each and every person is important.
(2) Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.
We believe that all people should be treated fairly and kindly.
(3) Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.
We believe that we should accept one another and keep on learning together.
(4) A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
We believe that each person must be free to search for what is true and right in life.
(5) The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.
We believe that all persons should have a vote about the things that concern them.
(6) The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.
We believe in working for a peaceful, fair, and free world.
(7) Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
We believe in caring for our planet Earth, the home we share with all living things.
What Happens at a Typical Service?
UU congregations usually meet on Sunday mornings. The service may be led by a UU minister or by a lay leader. (Many congregations prefer not to have a minister.)
The service will include some or all of the following elements. Each congregation has its own way of doing things, and the elements included may vary from week to week.
Most services begin with music and opening words. Sometimes a moment of silent meditation and/or a responsive reading is included.
There are hymns and songs sung by a choir, by the congregation, or by a performer or band.
The chalice is on a table in front of the pulpit or podium. It is lit at some point towards the beginning of the service. Specific words are recited by the congregation during this ceremony. The service may also include other recitations called “affirmations.”
A collection will be taken.
There will be a time for “Joys and Concerns.” Members share with the congregation significant life events of joy or of sorrow because "a joy shared is a joy doubled and a sorrow shared is a sorrow lessened.” People may share by speaking or silently—whichever means is favored by the particular congregation.
In some congregations, there may be a special segment for children, usually involving the telling or reading of a story. Children are usually excused before the main presentation of a message begins.
There will be a twenty-minute “sermon,” “homily” or “talk.” The talk may be inspirational, educational, or spiritual. The message will relate in some way to one or more of the principles.
In some congregations, there is “talkback,” after the talk--a five minute Q & A for the speaker.
The service will close with music, a hymn, and closing words from the service leader. The chalice will be extinguished.
The service is followed by “coffee hour” which usually lasts about 20 to 30 minutes. People enjoy beverages, light snacks, and conversation.
Many congregations precede the service with an “adult education” hour. It may include a speaker or be a group discussion on a particular subject.
It’s not so different from what happens at the services of other faith groups, except for the lack of readings from a Holy Book, blessings, and prayers.
A UU Affirmation
What Are Some of the Hymns and Affirmations at a UU Service?
When the chalice is lit, words are recited by the congregation. The following words are quite common, but some congregations may use other words.
“In the light of truth and the warmth of love, we gather to seek to sustain and to share."
When the chalice is extinguished, words are again recited. This is one commonly- used phrase.
“We extinguish this flame, but not the light of truth, the warmth of community, or the fire of commitment. These we carry in our hearts until we are together again.”
Some common affirmations at a UU service are:
“Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its gift. This is our great covenant, to dwell together in peace, to seek truth in love, and to help one another."
“Love is the doctrine of this church. The quest for truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace; to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve humankind in fellowship--Thus do we covenant with each other. “
When the children leave the service, they are often sung out. These are two of the songs that may be sung at this time.
“As we leave this friendly place, love gives light to every face. May the kindness which we learn, light our lives till we return.”
“Go now in peace. Go now in peace. May the spirit of love surround you. Everywhere, everywhere, you may go.”
The hymns tend not to focus on the worship of a deity, but instead express love for life, the earth, and other people. The hymns are usually taken from the hymnbook, Singing in the Living Tradition.
If Unitarian Universalism can be said to have an anthem, it is “Spirit of Life” written by Carolyn McDade. In this video, the song is sung by the "All Souls Choir” and the visuals were compiled by Michelle Sherliza.
Spirit of Life
What Is the History of Unitarian Universalism?
Universalism was founded in the sixteenth century in Transylvania. Its main doctrine was the belief in an entirely loving God who will ultimately redeem all human beings; no one is condemned to Hell; everyone is “saved.” This sect was relentlessly persecuted by the established Christian church for heresy.
Unitarianism rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and proclaimed the singular nature of God. It was founded in America in the late 1700’s.
Some modern day UUs who do not believe in God at all like to say that the “Unitarian” part of “Unitarian Universalist" means that all people are one people, and the “Universal” part means that Earth is part of a larger universe.
Who Are Some Famous UUs?
Included among Unitarian Universalists (or Unitarians and Universalists before the 1961 merger of the two faiths) are presidents, writers, scientists, entertainers, and people from every walk of life. For such a small group they are disproportionately represented among the successful and famous.
Here are just a few names in no particular order: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Louisa May Alcott, Clara Burton, E. E. Cummings, Charles Dickens, Henry David Thoreau, Kurt Vonnegut, Paul Newman, Sylvia Plath, Rod Sterling, Pete Seeger.
Are You a UU and Don’t Know It?
Many people hold UU beliefs, but they don’t know it. Many times people say they didn’t know they were UU until they took an online quiz. There are several quizzes you can take. Here is one of them: What Religion Are You? Quiz
Another way to find out if Unitarian Universalism is for you is to attend a few services at a congregation near you. It is best to attend at least three times before making a decision. See if you feel comfortable there and if you like the people.
Why Does the Atheist Go to Church?
As mentioned above, many UUs believe in God, in the Universalist sense. But many are atheists. So, why does an atheist go to church?
An atheist goes to church for the same reasons a lot of people go to church--it gives a person a community to belong to, it reinforces moral percepts, it lifts a person up spiritually.
UU is a good fit for secular humanists--look for a congregation that has Society or Fellowship in its name. What is a secular humanist? That is a topic for another article. See What is Secular Humanism.
Learn more about Unitarian Universalism.
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© 2014 Catherine Giordano