By Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
April 4, 1954
An inclusive, not an exclusive
faith, based on individual freedom of belief, with appreciation for
the enduring values of the Bible and other great scriptures, and of
the teachings of the man, Jesus, finding salvation not through
someone elseâs martyrdom, but by education and the disciplines of
democracy, a positive faith starting with human experience, which
leads to the realization of a something-not-ourselves which many
call God, and to a conception of religion as useful righteousness, a
faith which can unite the world.
The Unitarian Church, if it be true to its principles, cannot be
sectarian. As Channing put it, in words that became famous, the
Unitarian is a member of the Universal Church the church from which
no man can be excommunicated "but by the death of goodness in his
own breast." It was Channing's hope, as it was that of many others,
that it would not be necessary to form a Unitarian denomination. All
that was necessary was that existing churches should remove the
barriers raised by creeds and receive into fellowship all who sought
the good life as Jesus and the bible prophets taught it.
At one time, this seemed entirely possible. The new spirit of
freedom that had given birth to the United States as a nation could
also have made freedom the basic tenet of the Protestant churches.
It was with this in view that Thomas Jefferson expressed the hope
that within a single generation the people of the United States
would become Unitarian. "I rejoice," he wrote, "that in this blessed
country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed
and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of
only one God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man
now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian."1 But
it was not to be. Both Channing and Jefferson were over-optimistic.
And so the Unitarian faith, although opposed to sectarianism, was
obliged to maintain itself through its own distinctive churches.
That is how the Unitarian denomination came to be. It was founded in
1825 by reluctant people who had come to see that there was no other
way if religious freedom as they understood it was to be maintained
But is it true that a church can be founded upon individual freedom
of belief and still possess a common faith? Will it not happen that
the variations in belief will be so wide that no common faith is
possible? The answer is, in the first place, that freedom itself is
the basic precept of the Unitarian faith. Instead of people being
bound together as a society of those who all believe - or are
supposed to believe - the same things, Unitarians are united by
their faith in freedom. This is a far larger faith than anything
that is defined by dogma. What it means is this: that we can put our
trust in freedom, both for ourselves and for one another, believing
that we shall come closer to truth if our minds are unfettered.
What the churches of authoritarian belief are based upon - or if not
based upon it, then restricted by it - is the fear that if people
are allowed to think freely they will arrive at wrong and harmful
conclusions, and therefore they must be told what they must believe.
This certainly puts much less trust in human nature than does the
Unitarian faith in freedom.
Perhaps, however, this trust may go too far. Suppose that in a given
situation, an individual Unitarian insists that he is right and all
the others wrong. The answer is that this can be a very healthy
situation. Such a Unitarian is entitled to do all he can to prove
that he is right - which, of course, he may be. It has happened
frequently in history that one man has been right and all others
wrong, as for example, in the case of Semmelweiss, or even of
Copernicus. And if he is not so much right as eccentric, no harm
will be done. Unitarians are not afraid of eccentricity.
This, then, in the first place: freedom is itself the basic precept
of the Unitarian faith, both because it is the natural right of
every individual person and because it is, as history proves, the
best basis to go upon: and in reliance upon freedom, Unitarians are
But there are other respects in which Unitarians are united -
united, be it noted, not by requirement or compulsion but because,
having used their freedom, they have come to similar conclusions.
Unitarians, for instance, go to the Bible expecting to use
discernment and without forsaking their common sense. They do not
think the Bible is a supernatural revelation, but most of them do
think that it contains great insights and messages of enduring
value. Most of them think that the scriptures of the other great
religions are of similar value. And that the scriptures were not
closed when the canonical Bible was selected, but are still being
written. In other words, the Unitarian faith is inclusive of what is
found good in any religion - and nearly all Unitarians so believe.
Another opinion held by nearly all Unitarians is that Jesus is a
great prophet but not a person in a trinity. This is so widespread a
Unitarian belief that many people who do not know our history regard
it as our basic faith. For that reason, they think our faith is
negative. But they are wrong on both counts. Our basic faith is in
freedom of belief, not in a particular opinion about the person of
Jesus. But our use of freedom has led us to the conclusion about
Jesus that I have stated - not a negative conclusion but a very
positive belief that Jesus means far more as a man that we can try
to understand than as a supernatural figure who must remain remote
and incomprehensible. Moreover, we believe that it is a more
positive use of the intellect to come to a rational conclusion than
it is to accept a doctrine passively which common sense tells us is
unlikely to be true.
Other elements of the Unitarian faith at which we have arrived in
freedom are: a greater reliance upon science and modern knowledge
than upon the dogmatic teachings of the past; a belief that we have
within ourselves the power of our own salvation and that reliance
upon salvation through some else's martyrdom is superstitious and
immoral; the opinion that it is better not to assert something of
which you have no real knowledge or experience and that when you do
not know, you should say so.
These are a few of the elements - many would class them among the
more important ones - of Unitarian faith. They are not imposed upon
us. No individual among us is compelled to believe them. But most
Unitarians do believe them - and believe them because the free use
of their own minds has persuaded them that these beliefs are true.
A further commitment of the Unitarian faith is to democracy - not
merely as a political system but as the just and brotherly way in
human relations. We do not think that in a church some should
command and the rest obey, as is the case with a hierarchy; we do
choose leaders, but we choose them freely. And we hold that each
individual has his own place in the councils of the society. We
think that discussion - which Thomas Masaryk said was the essence of
democracy - is the path to true agreement. We are educators one of
another, and all can learn from each.
We are well aware that democracy can be a discipline - and sometimes
a harsh one. But this is part of its value. We grow by learning to
get along with other people. We grow even more when we learn to
respect and like each other, to have a concern, each for all, in the
words of the New Testament, to "love one another."
Again, let it be noted, this is a positive faith. It is true, of
course, that it does not start with the creedal affirmations. But
this only means that it does not begin by saying what we believe on
subjects about which we know the least. It begins where we really
are, and with life as it comes to us, life as we may choose to live
it. What is there really positive about beginning with the ultimate
mysteries - and indeed ending with them, as the Apostles Creed
does? This, actually, is an escape from the positive. It negates the
reality of our ignorance, the reality of the struggle to know and
understand, the reality of the hard-won truth by which we live. It
does so by flying off into assertions which, even if they were true,
are detached from the world of experience. Surely, it is the faith
that truly contends with life - and upon the basis of reality - that
But, it will be asked, should not religion begin with God? The
answer is that it should - in the same way that breathing begins
with air. In that sense, most Unitarians would have no difficulty in
agreeing that religion begins with God. But it should not begin with
what we know about God. For we know too little. There are indeed
Unitarians who prefer not to use the word God, because it seems to
them to indicate either something that tradition has so falsified
that there is nothing to do but abandon it, or else something too
indefinite to be named. This is their privilege as Unitarians -
using their freedom of belief.
The position most agreed upon by Unitarians, however, is that we
should begin with experience, including spiritual experience. This
means man's power of moral growth, "of loving and creating beauty;
and through spiritual awareness, great intensities of insight and
imagination." This will lead in many cases, perhaps in most, to
using the word God in its truest and most evocative sense.
It may be of interest that in 1943, when last a very wide canvass
was made of Unitarian belief, the category about which it was most
difficult to secure agreement - agreement, that is, to the extent
necessary for preparing a statement of faith and purpose - was the
one concerned with God. But the statement was eventually written,
and this is the paragraph concerning Unitarian faith in God:
"We believe experience reveals a Mystery more sublime and wonderful
human life, and which exceeds our understanding. In this we see the
of mind and spirit. We recognize that each of us must name this
his thought directs, but that the language of the heart has called
Many Unitarians would want to go farther than that; a few would be
unwilling to go so far. Most, no doubt, find common ground within
the language of this affirmation. But for any of us the emphasis
should always be the spiritual in experience - revealed as truth,
radiant as beauty, compelling as righteousness, and warm with love.