The Unitarian Movement was defined as a significant minority movement under the influence of Humanism. The name “Unitarians” comes from the belief in one divine Person, a belief also common to Judaism and Islam, as opposed to the doctrine of the Trinity.

However, non-Trinitarianism is not the only principle, nor the most important of this movement. There have been other anti-Trinitarian movements and denominations in the history of Christianity, such as Arianism, which encompassed much of Christianity between the fourth and the sixth centuries, but the Unitarians emerged as a rationalist-humanist current in the radical wing of the Reformation.

In 1527, Martin Borrhaus (Cellarius), a German theologian and scholar inspired by the tolerant Wolfgang Capito, published a book containing both Anabaptist and anti-Trinitarian ideas. In the absence of public agitation, Borrhaus did not suffer much for his ideas. But his book influenced others. In 1539, Katerine Weigel, 80, was burned at the stake in Poland after 10 years in prison. The old woman was convicted of spreading anti-Trinitarian ideas; she had read Borrhaus’s book.

Discussions about freedom of conscience, a fundamental Unitarian principle, emerged after Servetus’s death and have influenced Europe and America over the centuries.

Michael Servetus (1511–1533) was a physician, Humanist, scientist, and theologian from Spain (or Navarre) who was burned at the stake in Geneva under the authority of Calvin. He contributed to the formation of the Unitarian conscience through his writings, despite being just a radical Protestant who vehemently espoused an unorthodox form of the Trinity doctrine and downplayed the importance of “original sin.” Discussions about freedom of conscience, a fundamental Unitarian principle, emerged after Servetus’s death and have influenced Europe and America over the centuries.

The beginning of the Unitarian Movement

The founders of the Unitarian denomination were two Italian scholars, who operated in Poland (Lelio, died 1562, and Fausto Sozzini, or Socinus, died 1604). From Sozzini’s name, the Unitarians are also called Socinians. Another important pioneer of the movement was the physician Georgio Biandrata (died 1588), who operated in Poland and Transylvania before returning to Catholicism.

However, the main figure of Unitarianism during the Reformation was the Transylvanian Saxon Franz David Hertel from Cluj, known as Dávid Ferenc (died 1579). Originally a Catholic priest, he became a Lutheran bishop, then a Calvinist and Unitarian preacher at the court of John Sigismund Zápolya, the prince of Transylvania and disputed king of Hungary (died 1540).

Following the same path, from Catholicism to Lutheranism and then to Calvinism, the prince also became a Unitarian, governing a territory in which religious tolerance was legislated for the first time, by the Edict of Turda (1568). At the same time, the Székely “Sabbatarian” Movement emerged as a branch of Transylvanian Unitarianism. After the death of the Unitarian prince, the light of freedom was extinguished, and Dávid died a martyr in Deva.

Ideas cannot be killed. They travel in space and time and come back to life.

In Transylvania, Dávid’s descendants survived, forming a minority church, predominantly Hungarian, and the Székely Sabbatarians were decimated to extinction. However, ideas cannot be killed. They travel in space and time and come back to life.

In addition to the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, the Unitarians also called into question doctrines like predestination, original sin, the inherent immortality of the soul, and eternal torment. These ideas would influence other denominations as well. The American Baptist Henry Grew made them popular through a pamphlet, discovered by chance by George Storrs (1837), a Methodist pastor who would influence some groups of the Millerite (Adventist) Movement.

Worldwide, and especially in the United States, Unitarianism has distanced itself more and more from Christianity. The Unitarian Christ is only a man in special connection with God. His sacrifice is no longer atoning. It is just an example, a moral influence. Unitarianism has become pluralistic and tolerates all teachings (except for conservative theologies!).

Unitarian principles

There is no creed, only humanistic principles: respect for human dignity, equity, compassion, mutual acceptance, free research, the right to conscience, democracy, peace, freedom, global justice, and respect for nature and life.

In addition to the critical and selective approach to the Bible or other religious scriptures, Unitarians accept the direct experience with the “transcendent mystery” asserted by all cultures as a source of truth, the humanistic teachings that consider reason as the ultimate guide, the results of science and the traditions that celebrate life and nature, as well as pantheistic, pagan, and neo-pagan spirituality.

In the United States, the Unitarians joined the Universalists in 1961. Universalism, which emerged in America after 1700, is the belief that all people will eventually be saved, relying on the philosophy of the soul’s immortality and an extreme view of God’s goodness.

There is no creed, only humanistic principles.

This is a revival of Origen’s teaching (died 253), which also influenced the theology of new denominations, such as Mormonism and Spiritism. Unlike the evolution of the movement in the United States, in Transylvania Unitarianism remained more conservative and more attached to the Bible.

Although at first the Unitarians were persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants, their rationalist-humanist principles strongly influenced Western thinking, giving rise to modernist schools utilising the historical-critical approach to the Bible, accepted in the theology of the old Protestant and Catholic churches.

In terms of worship, Unitarians are similar to Protestants in general. They gather on Sunday and have services with hymns, prayers, sermons, and so on. Many Unitarian churches no longer practise baptism and the Eucharist.

Unitarianism first spread to Europe (Poland, Transylvania, Hungary, the Netherlands, then to Spain, Italy, Bohemia, Denmark, Finland, Germany), the United Kingdom, and the United States, and then to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and even Asia (Indonesia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka). However, these are only small groups that do not proselytise. There are fewer than 200,000 Unitarians in the United States. Transylvania has the largest community of “Biblical Unitarians”, numbering about 75,000 members.

Among the world personalities of Unitarian confession or Unitarian opinion are: Francis Ronalds, George Boole, Florence Nightingale, Susan Anthony, Julia Ward Howe, Ezra Cornell, and the composer Edvard Grieg.

Unitarians also take pride in a few Nobel laureates and a few Unitarian American presidents. Isaac Newton, although officially an Anglican, was secretly a Unitarian. Dr. Albert Schweitzer also had a Unitarian theology and philosophy of life. The inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, is a declared atheist, but at the same time a Unitarian Universalist. 

Despite some shortcomings that we have mentioned, some of which are serious, Unitarianism has also played a positive, beneficial role for mankind in general and even for the history of Christianity. Many of the fundamental Unitarian principles have been adopted by various other churches as well. Therefore, the views of an unorthodox minority must be weighed even today in the light of the Bible and history.

Florin Lăiu looks honestly and objectively at one of the movements that belonged to the Radical Reformation, proving that some Unitarian beliefs were as orthodox as possible and really worth appreciating.