Wednesday, May 18, 2005


This post does not concern the UU denomination, but focuses rather on classical unitarianism, the kind that came forth in New England in the 19th Century. These Unitarians diverged from conventional Christianity primarily if not exclusively in their rejection of the Trinity and/or the divinity of Christ.

This tradition has a long and honorable ancestry. Special mention here will go to:

The development of the Trinity at the Council of Nicea (325) was in large measure due to the rivaly between Christians who considered Christ, the son of God, as equal to God the Father (called Athanasians) and the followers of Arius, who believed that Christ was created by God.

Although the Council is generally thought to have settled the matter, that is not entirely true. The Arian party went into eclipse-- temporarily. Constantine, who had supposedly chosen the Trinity, soon changed his mind-- several times in fact. On his deathbed he was baptized by an Arian priest.

Over a period of time the Athanasians maintained the place of power in Rome and made the Trinity an obligatory doctrine for all Christians; they considered the Arian Christians to be 'heretics'. Meanwhile most of Europe was being evangelized-- by Arians.

In 410 the Visigoth, Alaric, an Arian Christian sacked Rome. His damage to the city was minimal, and he allowed the Roman religious authorities to continue with the activities of their church.

The Arian Visigoths and Vandals settled in North Africa where warfare between Arian and Roman Christians ensued for many years. The Romans eventually attained dominance, but "heretical" Arian Christians sprang up in various places in Europe throughout the history of Christianity. Look for example at Socianism.

Mohammed is not commonly thought of as a unitarian, but his rejection of what he perceived as polytheism had a prominent role in the origin of his rival faith.

'Political theology' had played a big part in establishing the Nicene Creed and the Trinity. The same kind of political theology played a similar role in Mohammed's rejection of it: since Alexander the Great various human gods had been imposed on the Arabian and other Eastern cultures who came under Alexander's Empire. The deification of Jesus must have appeared to the Arabs much like the deification of Alexander and other 'god pretenders'; Mohammed chose strict monotheism: There is one God; his name is Allah. (Allah is the Arabian word for God; it is used by Christian Arabs as well as Moslem ones.)

Mohammed, and his followers, venerated (and still venerate) Jesus; they consider him the greatest of prophets after Mohammed. They consider Mohammed the last prophet: God had ordained that henceforth he would be worshipped in the ways Mohammed had designed-- and no other (not really that different from most Christian authorities!). Part of Mohammed's design was that Jesus will appear again at the last day.

A relatively small splinter group of Moslems believe they have directions from God to conquer the world and make it-- Moslem. A similar number of Christians have very similar ideas about their God.

The Enlightenment
The two best known early unitarians in England were Isaac Newton and John Locke.

In the 19th Century Unitarianism became one of many Christian denominations; The primary problem they had with conventional Christianity was trinitarianism and the deity of Christ.

John E. Clayton, my grandfather, was a founding member of the Unitarian Church in New Orleans, Descended from a long line of Quakers, then Methodists he left rural Concordia Parish as a young man to study law.
In N.O. he followed in the footsteps of Emerson to reject the Trinity-- and the divinity of Christ.

While he was there my father was born (1897). After getting his law degree he returned to practice law and politics in Concordia Parish. Becoming tubercular he took his family to Roswell and died there.

Many years later I passed through Roswell. I found his grave in a large Masonic lot, empty except for his body. I had an impulse to direct my own remains to that spot-- to keep him company. I am a unitarian in the sense that he was.


Marjorie said...

What a wonderful post, Larry, thank you.

Its very tricky, because I understand that trinitarianism was a political move and yet I feel wedded to it in some ways. As you've quoted many times, (Jung said?) much dis-ease can be attributed to leaving the faith of your youth. Anyway, its my story and I'm sticking to it, but understanding the history gives me an open-mindedness I did not have before.

I really don't think God cares about the doctrine and the dogma. Have we loved Him? Have we tried? How'd we do with loving our neighbors? How'd we do with loving ourselves? These are the important questions, not did we get Jesus right?

Larry said...

You're right, Marjorie; God doesn't care; and also right to stick with your faith. Your response helps me to think more charitably about trinitarians. As someone said: it's a wonderful experience, but a terrible dogma.

Actually I've doubted the Trinity for many years, but this is the first time I've made a noise about it. I'd like to see where you are at 79, but I'll have to do that from upstairs unless medical science makes a rapid jump.

david said...

Of course strictly speaking Unitarians and Arians take up differing satnces. An Arian believed Christ was the first creation but still a heavenly being who entered into humanity and through resurrection became one with God. So the argument between Arians and Athanasians is an argument about what happened before the universe was created. Something of a moot point at best.

Unitarians see Christ a as human teacher -- at elast that's how they paint themselves now. There are also a network of Christian unitarians -- I'm not sure how they construct the issue.

Robert Barclay (early Quaker) took great pains to distance himself from the Socinians -- a kind proto-unitarian movement that taught Chrsit was born human and became divine -- a kind of reverse of the Arian stance.

I'm with Marjorie when she says I understand that trinitarianism was a political move and yet I feel wedded to it in some ways.

I think it was Pascal (or maybe Augustine) who said the heart has reason reason cannot know. At the end of all my hampster-wheel brain-work I'm willing live with it.

Amanda said...

Kwake, I love it when you say "hampster wheel brain" because I've got one too. Larry, thank you for this post...I knew my own conflicted non-stance on the issue but never saw a timeline on the history of it. I studied all sorts of heresies in my Catholic education, but I promptly forgot most of them. I think I somehow knew that a few of them brushed too close to home for me and if I concentrated on them, I might agree with them.

Thank you, Margery for your reminder of the important questions. I recently said on my blog, I've decided not to try to not worry about these things anymore (for now) and just Love. It's not easy, when you have a hampster wheel for a brain!