Unitarianism is a doctrine of God which asserts that the singleness and simplicity of God are contradicted by the doctrine of the Trinity, and therefore rejects the doctrine of the Trinity.

Many Christians hold that a denial of the trinity and a subsequent lack of belief in the godhead of Jesus Christ is not a position tenable for Christians. Further, a baptism is not valid unless the trinitarian formula is used in its administration, Therefore many Christians regard Unitarianism as a non-Christian religion.


Unitarianism as a system of Christian thought and religious observance has its basis, as opposed to that of orthodox Trinitarianism, in the unipersonality of the Godhead, i.e. in the idea that the Godhead exists in the person of the Father alone. Unitarians trace their history back to the Apostolic age, claim for their doctrine a prevalence during the ante- Nicene period, and by help of Arian communities and individual thinkers trace a continuity of their views to the present time. Whatever the accuracy of this lineage, the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century saw in many European countries an outbreak more or less serious of anti-Trinitarian opinion. Suppressed as a rule in individual cases, this type of doctrine ultimately became the badge of separate religious communities, in Poland (extinct), in Hungary, and at a much later date in England.

Along with the fundamental doctrine, certain characteristics have always marked those who profess unitarianism; namely, a large degree of toleration, a minimizing of essentials, a repugnance to formulated creed, an historical study of scripture. Martin Cellarius (1499 - 1564), a friend of Luther, usually appears as the first literary pioneer (1527) of the movement; the anti-Trinitarian position of Ludwig Haetzer did not become public until after his execution (1529) for anabaptism. Both by his writings (from 1531) and by his fate (1533) Servetus stimulated thought in this direction. The Dialogues (1563) of Bernardino Ochino, while defending the Trinity, stated objections and difficulties with a force which captivated many. In his 27th Dialogue Ochino points to Hungary as a possible home of religious liberty. And in Poland and Hungary definitely anti-Trinitarian religious communities first formed and were tolerated.


Scattered expressions of anti-Trinitarian opinion appear here early. At the age of 80, Catherine, wife of Melchior Vogel or Weygel, was burned at Cracow (1539) for apostasy; whether her views embraced more than deism is not clear. The first synod of the Reformed Church took place in 1555; at the second (1556), Gregory Pauli (Grzegorz Paweł z Brzezin) and Peter Gonesius (Piotr z Goniądza) avowed anti-Trinitarian and anabaptist views. The arrival of Biandrata in 1558 furnished the party with a leader. In 1565 the diet of Piotrkow excluded anti-Trinitarians from the existing synod; henceforward they held their own synods as the Minor Church. Known by various other names (of which Polish brethren and Arian were the most common), at no time in its history did this body adopt for itself any designation save "Christian". Originally Arian (though excluding any worship of Christ) and anabaptist, the Minor Church was (by 1588) brought round to his own views by Fausto Sozzini, who had settled in Poland in 1579 (see Socinianism). In 1602 James Sienynski (Jakub Sieniński) established at Raków a college and a printing-press, from which the Racovian Catechism was issued in 1605.

In 1610 a Catholic reaction began, led by Jesuits. The establishment at Raków was suppressed in 1638, two lads having pelted a crucifix outside the town. When twenty years public opinion widely considered them as Swedish collaborators during The Deluge, the Polish Diet gave anti-Trinitarians the option of conformity or exile. The Minor Church included many Polish magnates, but their adoption of the views of Sozzini, which precluded Christians from magisterial office, rendered them politically powerless. The execution of the decree, hastened by a year, took place in 1660. Some conformed; a large number made their way to Holland (where the Remonstrants admitted them to membership on the basis of the Apostles’ Creed); others to the German frontier; a contingent settled in Transylvania, not joining the Unitarian Church, but maintaining a distinct organization at Kolozsvár until 1793.

At Amsterdam was published (1665 - 1669) the Bibliotheca fratrum polonorum, embracing the works of Hans Krell (Crellius, Jan Crell), their leading theologian, of Jonas Schlichting (Szlichtyng), their chief commentator, of Sozzini and of Johann Ludwig Wolzogen; the title-page of this collection, bearing the words quos Unitarios vocant, introduced this term to Western Europe.

Transylvania and Hungary

No distinct trace of anti-Trinitarian opinion precedes the appearance of Biandrata at the Transylvanian court in 1563. His influence was exerted on Francis David (1510 - 1579), who was successively Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist and anti-Trinitarian. In 1564 David was elected by the Calvinists as "bishop of the Hungarian churches in Transylvania," and appointed court preacher to John Sigismund, prince of Transylvania. His discussion of the Trinity began (1565) with doubts of the personality of the Holy Ghost. His antagonist in public disputations was the Calvinist leader, Peter Juhász (Melius); his supporter was Blandrata. John Sigismund, adopting his court-preacher’s views, issued (1568) an edict of religious liberty at the Torda Diet, which allowed David (retaining his existing title) to transfer his episcopate from the Calvinists to the anti-Trinitarians, Kolozsvár being evacuated by all but his followers.

In 1571 John Sigismund was succeeded by Stephen Báthory, a Catholic, and trouble began. Under the influence of John Sommer, rector of the Kolozsvár gymnasium, David (about 1572) abandoned the worship of Christ. The attempted accommodation by Sozzini only precipitated matters; tried as an innovator, David died in prison at Déva (1579). The cultus of Christ became an established usage of the Church; it is recognized in the 1837 edition. of the official hymnal, but removed in the edition of 186~.

On the other hand, in 1621 a new sect arose, the Sabbatarii, with strong Judaic tendencies; though excluded from toleration they maintained an existence till 1848. The term unitarius (said to have been introduced by Melius in discussions of 1569 - 1571) makes its first documentary appearance in a decree of the Lécsfalva Diet (1600); it was not officially adopted by the Church till 1638.

Of the line of twenty-three bishops the most distinguished were George Enyedi (1592 - 1597), whose Explicationes obtained European vogue, and Michael Lombard Szentabrahámi (1737 - 1758), who rallied the forces of his Church, broken by persecution and deprivation of property, and gave them their existing constitution. His Summa universae theologiae secund urn Unitarios (1787), Socinian with Arminian modifications, was accepted by Joseph II as the official manifesto of doctrine, and so remains, though no subscription to it has ever been required. The official title is the Hungarian Unitarian Church, with a membership as of 1911 of 60,000, most of them in Transylvania, especially among the Székely (Szekler) population, a few in Hungary; their bishop had a seat in the Hungarian parliament. At Kolozsvár, the seat of the consistory, was the principal college; others were at Torda and at Székely-Keresztúr. Till 1818 the continued existence of this body was unknown to English Unitarians; relations subsequently became intimate; after 1860 a succession of students finished their theological education at Manchester College, Oxford; others at the Unitarian Home Missionary College.


Between 1548 (John Assheton) and 1612 we find a thin line of anti-Trinitarians, either executed or saved by recantation. Those burned included George van Parris. (1551), Flemish surgeon; Patrick Pakingham (1555), fellmonger; Matthew Hamont (1579), ploughwright; John Lewes (1583); Peter Cole (1587), tanner; Francis Kett (1589), physician and author; Bartholomew Legate (1612), cloth-dealer, last of the Smithfield victims; and the twice-burned fanatic Edward Wightman (1612). In all these cases the virus seems to have come from Holland; the last two executions followed the rash dedication to James I of the Latin version of the Racovian Catechism (1609). The vogue of Socinian views, which for a time affected men like Falkland and Chillingworth, led to the abortive fourth canon of 1640 against Socinian books.

The ordinance of 1648 made denial of the Trinity a capital offence, but it remained a dead letter, Cromwell intervening in the cases of Paul Best (1590 - 1657) and John Biddle (1616 - 1662). In 1650 John Knowles was an Arian lay-preacher at Chester. In 1652 - 1654 and 1658 - 1662 Biddlle held a Socinian conventicle in London; in addition to his own writings he reprinted (1651) and translated (1652) the Racovian Catechism, and the Life of Socinus (1653). His disciple Thomas Firmin (1632—1697), mercer and philanthropist, and friend of Tillotson, was weaned to Sabellian views by Stephen Nye (1648—1719), a clergyman. Firmin promoted a remarkable series of controversial tracts (1690 - 1699).

The term “Unitarian” first emerges in 1682, and appears in the title of the Brief History (1687). It was construed in a broad sense to cover all who, with whatever differences, held the unipersonality of the Divine Being. Firmin had later a project of Unitarian societies “within the Church“; the first preacher to describe himself as Unitarian was Thomas Emlyn (1663 -1741) who gathered a London congregation in 1705. This was contrary to the Toleration Act of 1689, which excluded all who should preach or write against the Trinity. It is noteworthy that in England the Socinian controversy, initiated by Biddle, preceded the Arian controversy initiated by Samuel Clarke’s Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity (1712).

Arian or semi-Arian views had much vogue during the 18th century, both in the Church and in dissent. The free atmosphere of dissenting academies (colleges) favoured new ideas. The effect of the Salters’ Hall conference (1719), called for by the alleged heresy of James Peirce (1673 - 1726) of Exeter, was to leave dissenting congregations to determine their own orthodoxy; the General Baptists had already (1700) condoned defections from the common doctrine. In 1689 Presbyterians and Independents had coalesced, agreeing to drop both names and to support a common fund. The union in the London fund was ruptured in 1693; in course of time differences in the administration. of the two funds led to the attaching of the Presbyterian name to theological liberals, though many of the older Unitarian chapels were Independent foundations, and at least half of the Presbyterian chapels (of 1690 -1710) came into the hands of Congregationalists.

Leaders in the advocacy of a purely humanitarian christology came largely from the Independents, such as. Nathaniel Lardner (1684 - 1768), Caleb Fleming (1698 - 1779), Joseph Priestley (1733 - 1804) and Thomas Bebham (1750 - 1829).

The formation of a distinct Unitarian denomination dates from the secession (1773) of Theophilus Lindsey (1723 - 1808) from the Anglican Church, on the failure of the Feathers petition to parliament (1772) for relief from subscription. Lindsey’s secession had been preceded in Ireland by that of William Robertson, D. D. (1705 - 1783), who has been called “the father of Unitarian nonconformity". It was followed by other clerical secessions, mostly of men who left the ministry, and Lindsey’s hope of a Unitarian movement from the Anglican Church was disappointed. By degrees his type of theology superseded Arianism in a considerable number of dissenting congregations. The Toleration Act was amended (1779) by substituting belief in Scripture for belief in the Anglican (doctrinal) articles; in 1813 the penal acts against deniers of the Trinity were repealed. In 1825 the British and Foreign Unitarian Association was formed as an amalgamation of three older societies, for literature (1791), mission work (1806) and civil rights (1818). Attacks were made on properties held by Unitarians, but created prior to 1813. The Wolverhampton Chapel case began in 1817, the more important Hewley Fund case in 1830; both were decided against the Unitarians in 1842. Appeal to parliament resulted in the Dissenters’ Chapels Act (1844), which secured that, so far as trusts did not specify doctrines, twenty-five years tenure legitimated existing usage.

The drier Priestley-Belsham type of Unitarianism, bound up ~vith a determinist philosophy, was gradually modified by the influence of Channing (see below), whose works were reprinted in numerous editions and owed a wide circulation to the efforts of Robert Spears (1825 - 1899). Another American influence, potent in reducing the rigid though limited supernaturalism of Belsham and his successors, was that of Theodore Parker (1810 - 1860). At home the teaching cf James Martineau (1805—1900), resisted at first, was at length powerfully felt, seconded as it was by the influence of John James Tayler (1797 - 1869) and of John Hamilton Thom (1808 - 1894).

English Unitarianism produced some remarkable scholars, e.g. John Kenrick (1788 - 1877), James Yates (1789 - 1871), Samuel Sharpe (1799 - 1881), but few very popular preachers, though George Harris (1794 -1859) forms an exception. For the education of its ministry it supported Manchester College at Oxford (which deduced its ancestry from the academy of Richard Frankland, begun 1670), the Unitarian Home Missionary College (founded in Manchester in 1854 by John Relly Beard, D.D., and William Gaskell), and the Presbyterian College, Carmarthen.

English Unitarian periodical literature begins with Priestley’s Theological Repository (1769 - 1788), and includes the Monthly Repository (1806 - 1838), The Christian Reformer (1834 - 1863), the Prospective Review (1845 - 1854), the National Review (1855 - 1864), the Theological Review (1864 - 1879), and the Hibbert Journal, one of the enterprises of the Hibbert Trust, founded by Robert Hibbert (1770 - 1849) and originally designated the Anti-Trinitarian Fund. This came into operation in 1853, awarded scholarships and fellowships, supported (1878 - 1894) ,an annual lectureship, and maintained (from 1894) a chair of ecclesiastical history at Manchester College.


Much has been made of the execution (1697) at Edinburgh of the student Thomas Aikenhead, convicted of blaspheming the Trinity. The works of John Taylor, D.D. (1694 - 1761) on original sin and atonement had much influence in the east of Scotland, as we learn from Robert Burns; and such men as William Dalrymple, D.D. (1723 - 1814) and William M’Gill, D.D. (1732 - 1807), along with other “moderates", were under suspicion of similar heresies. Overt Unitarianism has never had much vogue in Scotland. The only congregation of old foundation is at Edinburgh, founded in 1776 by a secession from one of the “fellowship societies” formed by James Fraser, of Brea (1639 - 1699). The mission enterprises of Richard Wright (1764 - 1836) and George Harris (1794 - 1859) produced results of no great permanence.

The Scottish Unitarian Association was founded in 1813, mainly by Thomas Southwood Smith, M.D., the sanitary reformer. The McQuaker Trust was founded (1889) for propagandist purposes.


Controversy respecting the Trinity was excited in Ireland by the prosecution at Dublin (1703) of Thomas Emlyti (see above), resulting in fine and imprisonment, for rejecting the deity of Christ. In 1705 the Belfast Society was founded for theological discussion by Presbyterian ministers in the north, with the result of creating a body of opinion adverse to subscription to the Westminster standards. Toleration of dissent, withheld in Ireland till 1719, was then granted without the requirement of any doctrinal subscription. Next year a movement against subscription was begun in the General Synod of Ulster, culminating (1725) in the placing of the advocates of non-subscription, headed by John Abernethy, D.D., of Antrim into a presbytery by themselves. This Antrim presbytery was excluded (1726) from jurisdiction, though not from communion. During the next hundred years its members exercised great influence on their brethren of the synod; but the counterinfluence of the mission of the Scottish Seceders (from 1742) produced a reaction. The Antrim Presbytery gradually became Arian; the same type of theology affected more or less the Southern Association, known since 1806 as the Synod of Munster. From 1783 ten of the fourteen presbyteries in the General Synod had made subscription optional; the synod’s code of 1824 left “soundness in the faith“ to be ascertained by subscription or by examination. Against this compromise Henry Cooke, D.D. (1788 - 1868), directed all his powers, and was ultimately (1829) successful in defeating his Arian opponent, Henry Montgomery, LL.D. (1788 - 1865). Montgomery led a secession which formed (1830) the Remonstrant Synod, comprising three presbyteries.

In 1910 the Antrim Presbytery, Remonstrant Synod and Synod of Munster united as the General Synod of the non-subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, with 38 congregations and some mission stations. Till 1889 they maintained two theological chairs in Belfast, where John Scott Porter (1801 - 1880) pioneered biblical criticism; they afterwards sent their students to England for their theological education, though in certain respects their views and practices remained more conservative than those of their English brethren.

Irish Unitarian periodical literature began in 1832 with the Bible Christian, followed by the Irish Unitarian Magazine, the Christian Unitarian, the Disciple and the Non-subscribing Presbyterian.

See generally R. Wallace’s Antitrinitarian Biog. (1850); G. BonetMaury’s Early Sources of Eng. Unit. Christianity, trans. E. P. Hall (1884); A. Gordon’s Heads of Eng. Unit. Hist. (1895).

United States

Unitarianism in the United States followed essentially the same development as in England, and passed through the stages of Arminianism, Arianism, anti-tritheism, to rationalism and a modernism based on a large-minded acceptance of the results of the comparative study of all religions. In the early 18th century Arminianism presented itself in New England, and sporadically elsewhere; this tendency was largely accelerated by the reaction from the excesses of the “Great Awakening” under Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. Before the War of Independence Arianism showed itself in individual instances, and French influences were widespread in the direction of deism, though they were not organized into any definite utterance by religious bodies.

As early as the middle of the 18th century Harvard College represented the most advanced thought of the time, and a score or more of clergymen in New England preached what was essentially Unitarianism. The most prominent of these men was Jonathan Mayhew (1720 - 1766), pastor of the West Church in Boston from 1747 to 1766. He preached the strict unity of God, the subordinate nature of Christ, and salvation by character. Charles Chauncy (1705 - 1787), pastor of the First Church from 1727 until his death, the chief opponent of Edwards in the great revival, was both a Unitarian and a Universalist. Other Unitarians included Ebenezer Gay (1698 - 1787) of Hingham, Samuel West (1730 - 1807) of New Bedford, Thomas Barnard (1748 - 1814) of Newbury, John Prince (1751 - 1836) and William Bentley (1758 - 1819) of Salem, Aaron Bancroft (1755 - 1836) of Worcester, and several others.

The first official acceptance of the Unitarian faith on the part of a congregation was by King's Chapel in Boston, which settled James Freeman (1759—1853) in 1782, and revised the Prayer Book into a mild Unitarian liturgy in 1785. The Rev. William Hazlitt (father of the essayist and critic), visiting the United States in 1783 - 1785, published the fact that there were Unitarians in Philadelphia, Boston, Charleston, Pittsburgh, Hallowell, on Cape Cod and elsewhere. Unitarian congregations were organized at Portland and Saco in 1792 by Thomas Oxnard; in 1800 the First Church in Plymouth accepted the more liberal faith. Joseph Priestley came to the United States in 1794, and organized a Unitarian Church at Northumberland, Pennsylvania, the same year, and one at Philadelphia in 1796. His writings had a considerable influence.

Thus from 1725 to 1825 a more tolerant and rational belief was developing in New England, and to some extent elsewhere. The first distinctive manifestation of the change was the inauguration of Henry Ware (1764 - 1845) as professor of divinity at Harvard College, in 1805. In the same year appeared Unitarian books by John Sherman (1772 - 1828) and Hosea Ballou (1771 - 1852), and another in 1810 by Noah Worcester (1758 - 1837). At the opening of the 19th century, with one exception, all the churches of Boston were occupied by Unitarian preachers, and various periodicals and organizations expressed their opinions. Churches were established in New York, Baltimore, Washington, Charleston and elsewhere during this period.

William Ellery Channing was settled over the Federal Street Congregational Church, Boston, 1803; and in a few years he became the leader of the Unitarian movement. At first mystical rather than rationalistic in his theology, he took part with the “Catholic Christians”, as they called themselves, who aimed at bringing Christianity into harmony with the progressive spirit of the time. His essays on The System of Exclusion and Denunciation in Religion (1815), and Objections to Unitarian Christianity Considered (1819), made him a defender of Unitarianism. His sermon on “Unitarian Christianity”, preached at Baltimore in 1819, at the ordination of Jared Sparks, and that at New York in 1821, on “Unitarian Christianity most favourable to Piety” made him its interpreter. The result was a growing division in the Congregational churches, which was emphasized in 1825 by the formation of the American Unitarian Association at Boston. It was organized “to diffuse the knowledge and promote the interests of pure Christianity“; and it published tracts and books, supported poor churches, sent out missionaries into every part of the country, and established new churches in nearly all the states.

Essentially non-sectarian, with little missionary zeal, the Unitarian movement has grown slowly; and its influence has chiefly operated through general culture and the better literature of the country. Many of its clergymen have been trained in other denominations; but the Harvard Divinity School was distinctly Unitarian from its formation, in 1816, to 1870, when it became an unsectarian department of the university. The Meadville (Pa.) Theological School was founded in 1844; and the Unitarian Theological School at Berkeley, California, in 1904.

Unitarian thought in the United States has passed through three periods. The first, from 1800 to 1835, was formative, mainly influenced by English philosophy, semi-supernatural, imperfectly rationalistic, devoted to philanthropy and practical Christianity. Dr Channing was its distinguished exponent. The second, from 1835 to 1885, profoundly influenced by German idealism, was increasingly rationalistic, though its theology was largely flavoured by mysticism. In 1865 the National Unitarian Conference was organized, and adopted a distinctly Christian platform, affirming that its members were "disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ”. The more rationalistic minority thereupon formed the Free Religious Association, “to encourage the scientific study of theology and to increase fellowship in the spirit.” The Western Unitarian Association accepted the same position, and based its “fellowship on no dogmatic tests,but affirmed a desire “to establish truth, righteousness and love in the world.” This period of controversy, and of vigorous theological development, practically came to an end soon after 1885; and its cessation was assured by the action of the national conference at Saratoga in 1894, when it was affirmed by a nearly unanimous vote that: “These churches accept the religion of Jesus, holding, in accordance with his teaching, that practical religion is summed up in love to God and love to man. The conference recognizes the fact that its constituency is Congregational in tradition and polity. Therefore it declares that nothing in this constitution is to be construed as an authoritative test; and we cordially invite to our working fellowship any who, while differing from us in belief, are in general sympathy with our spirit and our practical aims.” The leaders of this period were Emerson, with his idealism, and Theodore Parker, with his acceptance of Christianity as absolute religion.

The third period, beginning about 1885, has been one of rationalism, recognition of universal religion, large acceptance of the scientific method and ideas and an ethical attempt to realize what was perceived as to be the higher affirmations of Christianity. It has been marked by a general harmony and unity, by steady growth in the number of churches and by a widening fellowship with all other similarly minded movements.. This phase was shown in the organization of The International Council of Unitarian and other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workersat Boston on 25 May 1900, “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.” This council has held biennial sessions in London, Amsterdam, Geneva and Boston. During the period after 1885 the influence of Emerson became predominant, modified by the more scientific preaching of Minot J. Savage, who found his guides in Darwin and Spencer.

Beyond its own borders the body obtained recognition through the public work of such men as Henry Whitney Bellows and Edward Everett Hale, the remarkable influence of James Freeman Clarke and the popular power of Robert Collyer. The number of Unitarian churches in the United States in 1909 was 461, with 541 ministers. The church membership then, really nominal, may be estimated at 100,000. The periodicals were The Christian Register, weekly, Boston; Unity, weekly, Chicago; The Unitarian, monthly, New York; Old and New, monthly, Des Moines; Pacific Unitarian, San Francisco.

In 1961 the American Unitarian Association merged with the Universalist Church in America, forming the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA).


  • Joseph Henry Allen, Our Liberal Movement in Theology (Boston, 1882)
  • Joseph Henry Allen, Sequel to our Liberal Movement (Boston, 1897)
  • John White Chadwick, Old and New Unitarian Belief (Boston, 1894)
  • William Ellery Channing (1903)
  • Unitarianism: its Origin and history, a course of Sixteen Lectures (Boston, 1895)
  • George Willis Cooke, Unitarianism in America: a History of its Origin and Development (Boston, 1902)
  • Unitarian Year Book (Boston).

Much text from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica