FAQs

Our Unitarian Universalist Faith: Frequently Asked Questions

Who are Unitarian Universalists?

We are a religious people who have woven strands of a rich past into
a tapestry of the present.

In the first centuries of the Christian era, Christians held a
variety of beliefs concerning the nature of Jesus. In 325 CE,
however, the Council of Nicea promulgated the doctrine of the
Trinity-God as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost-and denounced all those
who believed differently as heretics.

In the sixteenth century, Christian humanists in Central Europe-in
Poland and Transylvania-studied the Bible closely. They could not
find the orthodox dogma of the Trinity in the texts. Therefore, they
affirmed-as did Jesus, according to the Gospels-the unity, or
oneness, of God. Hence they acquired the name Unitarian.

These sixteenth-century Unitarians preached and organized churches
according to their own rational convictions in the face of
overwhelming orthodox opposition and persecution. They also
advocated religious freedom for others. In Transylvania, now part of
Romania, Unitarians persuaded the Diet (legislature) to pass the
Edict of Toleration. In 1568 the law declared that, since “faith is
the gift of God,” people would not be forced to adhere to a faith
they did not choose.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, radical reformers in
Europe and America also studied the Bible closely. They found only a
few references to hell, which they believed orthodox Christians had
grossly misinterpreted. They found, both in the Bible and in their
own hearts, an unconditionally loving God. They believed that God
would not deem any human being unworthy of divine love, and that
salvation was for all. Because of this emphasis on universal
salvation, they called themselves Universalists.

In the eighteenth century, a dogmatic Calvinist insistence on
predestination and human depravity seemed to liberal Christians
irrational, perverse, and contrary to both biblical tradition and
immediate experience. Liberal Christians believe that human beings
are free to heed an inner summons of conscience and character. To
deny human freedom is to make God a tyrant and to undermine
God-given human dignity.

In continuity with our sixteenth-century Unitarian forebears, today
we Unitarian Universalists are determined to follow our own reasoned
convictions, no matter what others may say, and we embrace tolerance
as a central principle, inside and outside our own churches.

Also during the seventeenth century, reformers in several European
countries, especially in England, could not find a biblical basis
for the authority and power of ecclesiastical bishops. They
affirmed, therefore, the authority and power of the Holy Spirit to
guide the local members. These reformers on the radical left wing of
the Reformation, seeking to “purify” the church of its
“corruptions,” reclaimed what they believed to be ancient church
practice and named it congregational polity.

These same seventeenth-century radicals did away with creeds, that
is, with precisely phrased statements of belief to which members had
to subscribe. Members joining their churches signed a simple and
broadly phrased covenant, or agreement, such as this one: “We pledge
to walk together in the ways of the Lord as it pleaseth Him to make
them known to us, now and in days to come.”

Some of these reformers, the Pilgrims and the Puritans, crossed the
Atlantic and braved the North American wilderness to establish
covenanted congregations whose direction belonged to the local
members. Some of these original congregational churches developed
increasingly liberal theological beliefs after 1750, and in the
early nineteenth century, many of them added the word Unitarian to
their names. Thus, some of the oldest churches in the United States,
including the First Parish of Plymouth, Massachusetts, became
Unitarian. In the late eighteenth century, other radicals who
believed in religious liberty and universal salvation organized
separate Universalist congregations.

In continuity with our independent forebears, today Unitarian
Universalist congregations are covenanted, not creedal.
Congregational polity is a basic doctrine. In the spirit of freedom,
we cherish honest dialogue and persuasion, not coercion. We embrace
democratic method as a central principle. Our local members unite to
engage in and to support ministries of their own choosing.

The seventeenth-century scientific revolution began a great shift in
Western thinking. In the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment
brought an increased willingness to look critically and analytically
at all human institutions, without presupposing the sanctity or
privilege of any.

Many religious groups fiercely resisted these scientific analytical
ideas. Some still do. In the churches of our forebears, new
scientific and social ideas-from Newtonian physics, to evolution, to
psychology, to relativity-found ready acceptance. Indeed, some of
the greatest scientists and social theorists of the age were either
privately or publicly Unitarian or Universalist: Joseph Priestley,
Charles Darwin, Maria Mitchell, and Benjamin Rush, for example.

In the nineteenth century, increased travel and translation of
Eastern religious texts brought greater awareness of different
religions. Again, many of our forebears were uncommonly open to new
ideas from Eastern cultures. Ralph Waldo Emerson was deeply
influenced by Hinduism, and James Freeman Clarke was among the first
in the world to urge and teach the study of comparative religion.

In continuity with our forebears, today Unitarian Universalists
expect new scientific disclosures to cohere, not conflict, with our
religious faith. We embrace the challenge and the joy of
intercultural religious fellowship.

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How did the movement come to have such a long name?

In North America, Unitarianism and Universalism developed
separately. Universalist congregations began to be established in
the 1770s. Other congregations, many established earlier, began to
take the Unitarian name in the 1820s. Over the decades the two
groups converged in their liberal emphasis and style, and in 1961
they merged to become the Unitarian Universalist Association.

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Where can one find Unitarian Universalist congregations now?

More than one thousand congregations in the United States and Canada
belong to the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) of
Congregations, with headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts.

The oldest Unitarian congregations are in Romania. There are large
Unitarian congregations in the Khasi Hills of India. Others are
found in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, France, Great
Britain, Australia, Nigeria, South Africa, the Philippines, and
Japan. (Some of these are Unitarian and some are Universalist.)

North American Unitarian Universalists maintain ties with other
Unitarian Universalists throughout the world, mostly through our
membership in the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF),
organized in 1900. Members of the IARF include other liberal
Christian groups as well as Humanist, Hindu Reform, Shinto, and
Buddhist groups.

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What do UUs believe about God?

Some Unitarian Universalists are nontheists and do not find language
about God useful. The faith of other Unitarian Universalists in God
may be profound, though among these, too, talk of God may be
restrained. Why?

The word God is much abused. Far too often, the word seems to refer
to a kind of granddaddy in the sky or a super magician. To avoid
confusion, many Unitarian Universalists are more apt to speak of
“reverence for life” (in the words of Albert Schweitzer, a
Unitarian), the spirit of love or truth, the holy, or the gracious.
Many also prefer such language because it is inclusive; it is used
with integrity by theist and nontheist members.

Whatever our theological persuasion, Unitarian Universalists
generally agree that the fruits of religious belief matter more than
beliefs about religion-even about God. So we usually speak more of
the fruits: gratitude for blessings, worthy aspirations, the renewal
of hope, and service on behalf of justice.

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What about Jesus?

Classically, Unitarian Universalist Christians have understood Jesus
as a savior because he was a God-filled human being, not a
supernatural being. He was, and still is for many UUs, an exemplar,
one who has shown the way of redemptive love, in whose spirit anyone
may live generously and abundantly. Among us, Jesus’ very human life
and teaching have been understood as products of, and in line with,
the great Jewish tradition of prophets and teachers. He neither
broke with that tradition nor superseded it.

Many of us honor Jesus, and many of us honor other master teachers
of past or present generations, like Moses or the Buddha. As a
result, mixed-tradition families may find common ground in the UU
fellowship without compromising other loyalties.

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And about the Bible?

In most of our congregations, our children learn Bible stories as a
part of their church school curricula. It is not unusual to find
adult study groups in the churches, or in workshops at summer camps
and conferences, focusing on the Bible. Allusions to biblical
symbols and events are frequent in our sermons. In most of our
congregations, the Bible is read as any other sacred text might
be-from time to time, but not routinely.

We have especially cherished the prophetic books of the Bible. Amos,
Hosea, Isaiah, and other prophets dared to speak critical words of
love to the powerful, calling for justice for the oppressed. Many
Unitarian and Universalist social reformers have been inspired by
the biblical prophets. We hallow the names of Unitarian and
Universalist prophets: Joseph Tuckerman, Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton,
Theodore Parker, Susan B. Anthony, and many others.

We do not, however, hold the Bible-or any other account of human
experience-to be either an infallible guide or the exclusive source
of truth. Much biblical material is mythical or legendary. Not that
it should be discarded for that reason! Rather, it should be
treasured for what it is. We believe that we should read the Bible
as we read other books (or the newspaper)-with imagination and a
critical eye.

We also respect the sacred literature of other religions.
Contemporary works of science, art, and social commentary are valued
as well. We hold, in the words of an old liberal formulation, that
“revelation is not sealed.” Unitarian Universalists aspire to truth
as wide as the world-we look to find truth anywhere, universally.

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How do UUs understand salvation?

The English word salvation derives from the Latin salus, meaning
health. Unitarian Universalists are as concerned with salvation, in
the sense of spiritual health or wholeness, as any other religious
people.

However, in many Western churches, salvation has come to be
associated with a specific set of beliefs or a spiritual
transformation of a very limited type.

Among Unitarian Universalists, instead of salvation you will hear of
our yearning for, and our experience of, personal growth, increased
wisdom, strength of character, and gifts of insight, understanding,
inner and outer peace, courage, patience, and compassion. The ways
in which these things come to, change, and heal us, are many indeed.
We seek and celebrate them in our worship.

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What ceremonies are observed, what holidays celebrated?

Our ceremonies-of marriage and starting a new family, naming or
dedicating our children, and memorializing our dead-are phrased in
simple, contemporary language. We observe these rites in community,
not because they are required by some rule or dogma, but because in
them we may voice our affection, hopes, and dedication.

Though practices vary in our congregations and change over time, UUs
celebrate many of the great religious holidays with enthusiasm.
Whether we gather to celebrate Christmas, Passover, or the Hindu
holiday Divali, we do so in a universal context, recognizing and
honoring religious observances and festivals as innate and needful
in all human cultures.

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Are Unitarian Universalists Christian?

Yes and no.

Yes, some Unitarian Universalists are Christian. Personal encounter
with the spirit of Jesus as the Christ richly informs their
religious lives.

No, Unitarian Universalists are not Christian, if by Christian you
mean those who think that acceptance of any creedal belief
whatsoever is necessary for salvation. Unitarian Universalist
Christians are considered heretics by those orthodox Christians who
claim none but Christians are “saved.” (Fortunately, not all the
orthodox make that claim.)

Yes, Unitarian Universalists are Christian in the sense that both
Unitarian and Universalist history are part of Christian history.
Our core principles and practices were first articulated and
established by liberal Christians.

Some Unitarian Universalists are not Christian. For though they may
acknowledge the Christian history of our faith, Christian stories
and symbols are no longer primary for them. They draw their personal
faith from many sources: nature, intuition, other cultures, science,
civil liberation movements, and so on.

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How is religious education conducted?

The program of religious education is determined, as are all other
programs, by members of the local congregation. A wide range of
courses is available through our Association. These are adapted by
members as they choose. Courses appropriate for children may be
offered in subjects as varied as interpersonal relations, ethical
questions, the Bible, world religions, nature and ecology, heroes
and heroines of social reform, Unitarian Universalist history, and
holy days around the world. The same is true of adult religious
education.

In most of our congregations, regular children’s worship-often held
during a portion of the adult service-is part of the program. We
seek to teach our children to be responsible for their own thinking
and to nurture their own impulses of reverence, morality, respect
for others, and self-respect.

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Do Unitarian Universalists practice what they preach?

Religious liberals put less emphasis on formal beliefs and more on
practical living. Our interest is in deeds, not creeds. We
appreciate the biblical text, “Be ye doers of the word, and not
hearers only.”

Our members have been active leaders in the struggles for racial
equality, civil liberty, international peace, and equal rights for
all people. We work as individuals, in congregational social action,
and in other groupings, including such denominational efforts as the
UUA’s Faith in Action Department and the UU-UN Office. We also work
with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which brings
critically needed social change to many parts of the world.

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How can I become part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation?

Many of our societies offer introductory sessions, study groups,
videotapes, and increasingly, a World Wide Web homepage to acquaint
those interested in membership with our history, Principles, and
programs. Individual appointments with ministers and members are
encouraged. Many pamphlets are available through the UUA Bookstore.
Usually, these are readily accessible in a church’s foyer, and even
small fellowships may have a good library of Unitarian Universalists
writings. The UUA website at www.uua.org is another good source of
information about Unitarian Universalism.

All of these, along with your presence with us at worship and in our
many other activities, provide the means for learning more about who
Unitarian Universalists are, and whether you want to become one of
us.

The last act of joining the congregation is simple, but significant:
You write your name on a membership card or in the membership book
or parish register.

We have no creedal requirements. With your signature you affirm your
pledge to enter and to remain in a continuing and tolerant dialogue
concerning the ways of truth and love, a dialogue within which free
persuasion may occur; to share in our fellowship and in our
corporate decision making; and to support with your gifts of energy
and money our common work for the common good.

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What are your church services like?

The services vary from church to church. Most last about an hour.
The centerpiece is usually a sermon delivered by the senior
minister. The sermons are usually thematic and rarely follow a
lectionary. Ministers often preach about universal themes of life,
truth and meaning. They use stories, myths and poems, as well as
scripture from a variety of world religions.

Services often begin with the lighting of the chalice-the symbol of
Unitarian Universalism. Brief words of reflection are usually read
as it is lit, inaugurating the start of the service.

We sing from our hymnal Singing the Living Tradition, which contains
a wide range of traditional and contemporary songs, using
gender-inclusive language. Many congregations have choirs.

Many congregations reserve a time in their services for lighting
“Candles of Joy and Concern.” Members are invited to come up from
their pews and light a candle at the front of the church to honor an
event in their lives, to share an idea, or to ask for the thoughts
and prayers of the community.

After the service, most congregations sponsor “coffee hour”-a chance
for people to socialize informally and to discuss the worship
service.

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What are your church
services like?

The services vary from church to church. Most last about an
hour. The centerpiece is usually a sermon delivered by the senior
minister. The sermons are usually thematic and rarely follow a
lectionary. Ministers often preach about universal themes of life,
truth and meaning. They use stories, myths and poems, as well as
scripture from a variety of world religions.

Services often begin with the lighting of the chalice-the symbol of
Unitarian Universalism. Brief words of reflection are usually read
as it is lit, inaugurating the start of the service.

We sing from our hymnal Singing the Living Tradition, which contains
a wide range of traditional and contemporary songs, using
gender-inclusive language. Many congregations have choirs.

Many congregations reserve a time in their services for lighting
“Candles of Joy and Concern.” Members are invited to come up from
their pews and light a candle at the front of the church to honor an
event in their lives, to share an idea, or to ask for the thoughts
and prayers of the community.

After the service, most congregations sponsor “coffee hour”-a chance
for people to socialize informally and to discuss the worship
service.

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What do you teach children?

Our children are taught to think for themselves, while receiving
guidance on moral and ethical behavior. They learn Bible stories and
talk about them, allowing their individual beliefs to unfold without
a dogmatic interpretation. We present them with thought-provoking
themes and allow them the space to develop points of view and
convictions. Our church schools often have chapel services, where
children lead and participate in their own services and find their
spirituality. Many churches include the children in part of the main
worship service before they go to another part of the church for
church school.

Children learn about the beliefs and practices of the world’s major
religions. They are encouraged to respect differences in
theology-many even spend a year visiting other churches, mosques and
synagogues in their area.

We have an award-winning, age-appropriate sexuality education
program for our youth as well as a Coming of Age process that most
churches use. Coming of Age is a program in which a church fosters
the transition of its youth into young adulthood.

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What does it mean if a congregation calls itself only Unitarian or
only Universalist?

The American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of
America consolidated in 1961. Many congregations kept their original
names after the consolidation, though fully consider themselves to
be Unitarian Universalist churches. For example, the First Unitarian
Church of Providence, RI, is a member of the Unitarian Universalist
Association, but retains its historical name.

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I’ve heard that Unitarian Universalists can believe anything they
want to. Is that true?

No. One could not be considered a Unitarian Universalist and believe
that subscription to specific doctrines or creeds are necessary for
access to God or spirituality or membership in our congregations.

Unitarian Universalists could not believe that God favors any group
of people based on any inherent qualities, such as skin color,
gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc.-or that any group
of people is more worthy of access to opportunities than any other
as a result of these qualities.

We don’t believe that autocratic, undemocratic or overly
hierarchical systems are appropriate methods of organizing our
congregations or the larger society.

We don’t believe that humanity has the right or moral authority to
exploit the environment or other life forms with whom we share this
planet.

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What does a person have to do to join a Unitarian Universalist
church?

Joining a Unitarian Universalist congregation generally entails
signing the membership book of a particular congregation. By signing
the book, people declare themselves part of that community. To
become a voting member of the community, most congregations require
an annual contribution to the church. Although some congregations
are more specific than others in suggesting what they would like
their members to give, few demand a particular amount as a condition
of membership.

Most congregations periodically offer “New UU” classes for those
considering or intending to join the church. These provide an
introduction to the congregation and to the principles and history
of our faith.

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Do Unitarian Universalists say grace? If so, what are some UU table
graces?

That depends on which Unitarian Universalist you ask. Some do, some
don’t. Our congregations don’t require their members to say grace
before eating. As with all religious practices, the decision about
whether to adopt this ritual is left to the individual.

A small collection of UU table graces can be found in the Handbook
of Religious Services, available from the UUA Bookstore: http://www.uua.org/bookstore/

Here are two sample graces from that collection:

“May the love we share around this table with family and friends

renew us in spirit.

May the spirit of hope, joy, peace, and love dwell within our hearts

This day and forever more. Amen.”

“A circle of friends is a blessed thing;

Sweet is the breaking of bread with friends;

For the honor of their presence at our board

We are deeply grateful.”

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How are Unitarian Universalist ministers trained?

Technically, our congregations are free to call whomever they wish
to be ministers of their communities. However, almost all our
churches select from a group of ministers that have been approved by
the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the UUA. To obtain approval
from this committee, ministers must have earned a Masters of
Divinity degree from an accredited theological school, completed a
year of supervised internship, read materials from a required
reading list, completed a course of clinical training in pastoral
care, and met other requirements before interviewing in front of the
committee itself.

There are two specifically UU seminaries in the United States:
Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago and Starr King
School for the Ministry in Berkeley, CA. Many of our ministers
graduate from other seminaries that are non-denominational. Both
Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, and Andover Newton
Theological School in Newton, MA, have sizable numbers of Unitarian
Universalists enrolled in their programs.

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What is the significance of the flaming chalice, the symbol of
Unitarian Universalism?

The flaming chalice is made up of two archetypes—a drinking vessel
and fire. It is rich in symbolism as a result. The chalice
represents sharing, generosity, sustenance, and love, among other
interpretations. The flame symbolizes witness, sacrifice, testing,
courage, illumination and more.

The origin of the symbol comes from the Unitarian Service Committee.
The USC was founded during World War II to assist war refugees who
needed to escape Nazi persecution. Artist Hans Deutsch drew the
flaming chalice in 1941 so that the USC could have it as a symbol
for official documents.

The director of the USC, Charles Joy, wrote this about the symbol
when it was first drafted:

“It represents, as you see, a chalice with a flame, the kind of
chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their alters. The holy
oil burning in it is a symbol or helpfulness and sacrifice. . . .
This was in the mind of the artist. The fact, however, that it
remotely suggests a cross was not in his mind, but to me this also
has its merit. We do not limit our work to Christians. Indeed, at
the moment, our work is nine-tenths for the Jews, yet we do stem
from the Christian tradition, and the cross does symbolize
Christianity and its central theme of sacrificial love.”

Today, the flaming chalice is the official symbol of the UUA. It
also functions as the logo for hundreds of congregations. It is also
a part of worship in many congregations — services often begin by
lighting a chalice while saying some brief reflective words.

There is no one official meaning of the flaming chalice. Like our
faith, it stands open to new and ongoing interpretation and
significance.

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Since Unitarian Universalists don’t have a creed or doctrine, how
can one describe a set of beliefs that they hold in common?

Our association of congregations has covenanted to affirm and
promote seven basic principles. They can be found here: http://www.uua.org/principles.html

One of our ministers, David O. Rankin, described our beliefs in ten
statements. They are:

1. We believe in the freedom of religious expression. All
individuals should be encouraged to develop their own personal
theology, and to present openly their religious opinions without
fear of censure or reprisal.

2. We believe in the toleration of religious ideas. All religions,
in every age and culture, possess not only an intrinsic merit, but
also a potential value for those who have learned the art of
listening.

3. We believe in the authority of reason and conscience. The
ultimate arbiter in religion is not a church, or a document, or an
official, but the personal choice and decision of the individual.

4. We believe in the never-ending search for Truth. If the mind and
heart are truly free and open, the revelations which appear to the
human spirit are infinitely numerous, eternally fruitful, and
wondrously exciting.

5. We believe in the unity of experience. There is no fundamental
conflict between faith and knowledge, religion and the world, the
sacred and the secular, since they all have their source in the same
reality.

6. We believe in the worth and dignity of each human being. All
people on earth have an equal claim to life, liberty and justice-and
no idea, ideal or philosophy is superior to a single human life.

7. We believe in the ethical application of religion. Good works are
the natural products of a good faith, the evidence of an inner grace
that finds completion in social and community involvement.

8. We believe in the motive force of love. The governing principle
in human relationships is the principle of love, which always seeks
the welfare of others and never seeks to hurt or destroy.

9. We believe in the necessity of the democratic process. Records
are open to scrutiny, elections are open to members, and ideas are
open to criticism-so that people might govern themselves.

10. We believe in the importance of a religious community. The
validation of experience requires the confirmation of peers, who
provide a critical platform along with a network of mutual support

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About the
Author

Alice
Blair Wesley is a Unitarian Universalist minister who has served
congregations in College Station, Texas; Silver Spring, Maryland;
Cherry Hill, New Jersey; Hagerstown, Maryland; and Harford County,
Maryland. 
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