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Worship is a necessary response to human life. Among Unitarians and Universalists, that response is unusual among the Western religious traditions because it is never presumed that the worshipper is paying homage to a deity, and so worship does not need to be oriented towards the supernatural. Unitarians often focus on the root of the old Anglo-Saxon word “worship” (weorthscipe) or “worth ship,” which means to reflect upon or celebrate things of worth in the natural world – an idea, a value, or a vision of how the world could be.
At a conference for the Unitarian Association for Lay Ministry in 2008, Martin Gienke of Bury St. Edmunds, England asked how Unitarian worship was different from other forms. He suggested that, “At best, our worship is unpredictable, varied and diffuse – it takes place in congregations free to choose their own patterns.” He also wondered, “Is our worship too word-centered, do we lack symbols, do we contain enough emotion?” These are questions that concern Unitarians and Universalists all over the world. The liberal religious movement generally does not follow prescribed liturgical patterns, but rather celebrates a “free” tradition when it comes to orders of worship, with each congregation choosing its own forms. This means that generally no established prayer book is followed, but services are “open” to include a variety of materials that the minister or service leader chooses. While Unitarian services in Transylvania follow an exclusively Christian format, many Unitarians elsewhere have services with readings that are not biblical, but may come from literary or humanist sources, or other world religious scriptures. The question of whether the services have too little emotion has been around ever since Ralph Waldo Emerson accused the rational Unitarians of being “corpse-cold.”
The winding pathway from the belief in total human depravity that characterized Calvinism to the free will espoused by the Unitarians can be found in developments within Puritan faith and culture. While the first settlers in America after 1630 ascribed to a faith in salvation by grace, these immigrants also included opportunistic capitalists who wanted to prove their own worth by succeeding in business. Many of those who found the secular life more appealing decided that a liberal faith placing fewer theological demands upon them was more congenial to this world rather than the next. Edward Johnson, a wealthy Puritan, reported, “our maritime towns began to increase roundly.” The prosperity of this “place of Merchandize” was a sign that God favored them, and this made worldliness more and more appealing.
The context for the development of a frugal, industrious, and ultimately successful life was within the confines of the local community where each Puritan church was gathered. A Puritan desire for more local and simple forms of worship was stated by Cotton Mather: “we would worship God without that Episcopacy, that common-prayer, and those unwarrantable ceremonies, with which the land of our fore fathers sepulchres has been defiled; we came because we would have our posterity settled under the pure dispensations of the gospel, defended by rulers that should be of ourselves.” The Puritans agreed that individual churches had the “power to choose their officers and ministers.” Self-rule, an aspect of Puritan life that fomented the growth of a Unitarian tradition, was codified in the Cambridge Platform of 1648 as “a scriptural model of church government.”
In the summer of 1886, in the western New York State city of Jamestown, Unitarians and Universalists shared a lecture platform for the first time. To bolster growth for his new Independent Congregational Church, James Townsend planned a summer lecture course. For two weeks in July that year, the “brightest minds in the country” occupied a tent and entertained large numbers of people. Soon The Unitarian was advertising both The Lakeside School and the New Theology, which “would unite in the bonds of a common sympathy all those who…are seeking to preserve the truth that has found imperfect expression in ancient forms of faith, and to set it forth in a form which shall command the respect and reverence of the disciples of science and modern thought.” The following spring, railroad developers purchased land from Clara Wilcox, with a site on Lake Chautauqua carved out for the Lakeside School. By the summer of 1887, a beautiful, 9,000 square foot tabernacle had been built in Wilcox Grove, and the second season of the school began. It was an enormous success. But there was no third season. By 1888, Townsend had suffered a breakdown and resigned his pulpit, and it was discovered that the developers had cheated Wilcox. She was forced to foreclose upon the property, and the Lakeside School of New Theology found itself with a huge debt, no home, and no leader. It was never reconstituted.
Once there were three men who were in the same book club, and also of different faiths. Michael, George, and Francis – or Miguel, Giorgio, and Ferencz – had very different backgrounds, spoke different languages, practiced different professions. Like us, they lived in an era when technology completely changed how information spread. For us it is the digital age and globalization; for them, half a millennium ago, it was the printing press, and the establishment of trans-Atlantic trade routes. Their book club was centered permanently on one book – the Bible; but because of the printing press, that Book could be studied outside of monasteries and in several languages. People began to read the words themselves. The atmosphere for discussion grew much larger. It was everywhere. It was not necessary to actually attend religious services to be heavily involved in the dialogue. Miguel Servetus, who trained as a lawyer and also worked as a cartographer, noticed that there was no trinity in the Bible, and he wrote about this, advocating for unitarian understandings of God. His books were banned.
Unitarian history in Great Britain often begins with the “father of English Unitarianism,” John Biddle (1615–1662), but the faith goes back much further, beginning with the translation of the Vulgate at the end of the fourteenth century. The Vulgate, a fourth-century Latin translation of the books of the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible, was, by the thirteenth century, both the official and the commonly used version of Christian scripture. John Wycliff (c. 1330–1384) developed a vernacular Bible to deepen a personal relationship with God, from whom all rights flowed to those who were in a state of grace. Wycliff then interpolated this belief into an attack on the institutionalized Catholic Church, which he believed had fallen into a state of sin. The Church could not claim rights that were only available as a gift of God. Wycliff proposed that the Church abandon all its property, require priests to live in poverty, and that the king eradicate the Church's endowment. He very quickly brought together the issues defining Unitarianism even today: locating authority; individualism both in piety and in the use of reason; and the relationship between assets and influence on the law.
Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists worldwide are connected to one another, and identify with this faith, even in its various regional incarnations. This has always been the case. The burgeoning liberal movement in Eastern Europe did not appear spontaneously. The radicals read and were persuaded by Servetus, absorbed humanism, and were protected by Muslims. In Great Britain, Dissenters read and re-read continental Unitarian literature while the Church of the Strangers embraced outsiders. Even in America, where generations of students learned that Unitarianism was mostly indigenous, it is now known that the Socinianism of those earliest European heretics seeped in, despite the New Englanders’ attempts to fend it off. The spirit of freedom from abroad infused those who expanded Unitarianism into the West, building new congregations. Today, the international movement seeks new avenues of expansion, and new areas of growth that may help sustain the faith in its ancient strongholds. Technology fosters bonds by making outreach, support, and connection easier. The process of sharing with one another globally also reifies the faith itself, by acting on the religious imperative to grow and learn from one another.
In a Unitarian Universalist setting, “education” is embodied in three distinct ways: congregationally, through religious education programs; associationally, through theological schools and the credentialing process for clergy and religious educators; and culturally, through an understanding of the purpose and goals of secular education. The irony of a trinity of forms is furthered by the fact that it is the secular understanding of education that has the most effect within the faith, and to which the largest contributions have been made. The reasons for this are varied, being deeply connected to both rational dissent and social reform, and part of the difficulty Unitarian Universalists have had in providing a cogent explanation of exactly what is “religious” about their religious education. Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists have been criticized for believing in “salvation by education”; for practicing social work in place of religious mission; for having little or no religious content in their educational curricula; and for promoting their own religious convictions through public school curricula. It is hard to believe that all these charges could be true, especially simultaneously! However, the small truths in each of these criticisms coalesce to form a deeply engaged, unified faith. The fact that religious education can look secular is not a sign of intellectual disinterest, but an important aspect of the practice of Unitarian Universalism.