From the Editor’s Notebook: Cults, part 7

From the Editor’s Notebook

W. Ross Rainey

Capsule Comments on the Cults
(Part 7)


Unitarianism is a “system of religious thought which rejects the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Christ, and seeks to show that a genuinely religious community can be created without doctrinal conformity. It has evolved from emphasis on scriptural authority to a foundation on reason and experience. Unitarians believe in the goodness of human nature, critize doctrines of the Fall, the Atonement, and eternal damnation, and require only openness to divine inspiration. In policy they are congregationalists.”1

As an organized movement Unitarianism, first in Poland and Hungary, dates from the Anabaptists of the Reformation, but only recently have there been Unitarian denominations.2 Unitarians like to trace their history back to Apostolic times, especially to the great Arian heresy condemned at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. However, it was not until the 14th and 15th centuries that the teachings of Unitarianism actually gained any popular support. None of the leading theologians down through the centuries ever held Unitarian teachings and remained in fellowship with the Christian Church, and this is true right to the present moment.

The first noteworthy Unitarian writer was Martin Cellarium (1499-1564), a friend of Martin Luther who advanced Unitarian views in 1527. Ludwig Haetzer (1529) and Michael Servetus (1531), the latter having been martyred for his views (1533), were anti-Trinitarian followers of Cellarium. Following these came Fausto Sozzini, better known as Socinus (1539-1604), Socinianism having found strong roots in Hungary, Poland and Transylvania, then finally in Holland, England and the United States.

Early in American history, Unitarianism was made known through the work of such preachers as Jonathan Mayhew (1720-1766), Joseph Priestly (1794), William Ellery Channing (1803), and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1838). Unitarians also claim such distinguished followers as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Russell Lowell, and many others, even daring to claim Sir Isaac Newton and Abraham Lincoln, the evidence all being to the contrary in the last two cases.

During its American development, Unitarianism passed through three stages, the first being from 1800-1835, having been strongly influenced by English philosophic rationalism during these years. Its second stage was from 1835-1885, having been strongly influenced by German Idealism and rationalistic theology during this period. The final stage, having begun in 1885 and continuing on to the present time, is characterized by the acceptance of evolution, the empirical methods of science in religion, a recognition of Universal Religion and “an ethical attempt to realize the higher affirmations of Christianity.”

Over the years Unitarianism has grown along rational, not Biblical lines. Having been started by anti-Trinitarians, many of whom were otherwise orthodox, it has developed into a creedless movement emphasizing the many forms of divine revelation and man’s presumed inherent goodness. Many today hold Unitarian ideas, of course, without belonging to a Unitarian church. Presently Unitarians stress the religion of the Sermon on the Mount and the oneness of the human family.3

Today the Unitarian Universalist Association numbers 1,000 churches with a membership of 185,000.4

As to Unitarianism’s major doctrines, three important tenets should be noted:

    1. Unitarianism rejects the authority of the Bible in spiritual, moral and doctrinal matters, yet it freely quotes the Bible (mostly out of context) to substantiate many of its own teachings.

    2. Unitarianism claims to be Christian, yet it denies such historic doctrines of Christianity as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, the vicarious blood atonement, Christ’s bodily resurrection and His Second Advent.

    3. Unitarianism rejects the doctrine of everlasting punishment.

As Walter R. Martin has said, “Unitarianism is the product, then, of the deification of reason, the rejection of Biblical authority, and a fierce pride in one’s ability to save himself. In effect it is ‘Glory to man in the highest’ — long live father Adam!”5

1 The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 995.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., p. 996.

4 Reader’s Digest 1979 Almanac and Yearbook, p. 708.

5 The Christian and the Cults, p. 17.