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History
 

Ours is an ancient faith. The first Unitarian presence in Europe emerged within eight years of Martin Luther's nailing his thesis on the door at Wittenburg in 1525, and within half a century of that date, there were organized Unitarian congregations in Europe.

Stefan Jonasson, Winnipeg

The insight giving rise to the word Unitarian goes back to Michael Servetus (1511-1553), a Spanish doctor. In Spain in his time Jews and Muslims were being dispossessed, killed, and driven out of the country for denying the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity is the concept that while God is essentially one, God is also three separate persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Jews and Muslims hold that God's essential oneness entails that all human beings, including Jesus, while children of God, are nonetheless beings other than God.

Servetus discovered that in the uncorrupted Greek New Testament there was no text to justify the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. He published two books arguing that Christians should bring their views of God and Jesus into conformity with Jewish and Muslim monotheism. Hence the word Unitarian -- God as unity, or one.

The emphasis on sensible, ethical religion which characterizes Unitarianism goes back to a movement of Christians in Italy in the 1530's and 1540's who had a liberal, enlightened programme for the reform of Christianity. They were driven from Italy by persecution, spreading their ideas and those of Servetus as they dispersed.

One Italian, Faustus Socinus, settled among the Polish Brethren, a radical Reformation movement that tried setting up a large commune at Cracow. There an open university, with freedom in religious ideas (an unheard of innovation in those days) and a publishing press spread Unitarian ideas throughout Europe, winning over such in England as John Milton and Isaac Newton.

Mounting persecution drove the Polish Brethren (or Socinians) from Poland in 1659. Their ideas, however, took permanent root in Transylvania (now part of Rumania) and Hungary, where there have been many Unitarian churches now for more than four centuries.

In England, the development of Unitarianism was slower, since professing Unitarian ideas was a criminal offence for a long time, and Unitarians were banned from public office until 1828. Unitarians there long went by other names, many by Presbyterian, a word denoting a form of church government.

Unitarianism came to this continent over two centuries ago. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, leaders of the American Revolution, were Unitarians. Unitarianism took root in the liberal wing of the Congregational church, tied in with the Boston establishment throughout the 19th century. In the 1820's, Unitarians began showing up in Canada from England, Ireland, and New England. The Unitarian Church of Montreal was founded in 1842,the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto in 1845.

The author, Rev. Charles W. Eddis, was the minister of the Unitarian Church of Montreal. He is now retired. He has served Unitarian congregations in Canada, the United States, and Great Britain. Dr. Eddis was one of the founders of the Canadian Unitarian Council and was its first president.

Reprinted with permission from the Canadian Unitarian Council's web site