UU Minute #53

Our Puritan Roots

Joseph Priestley founded the Unitarian Church of Philadelphia in 1796 – the first church on American soil to bear the name Unitarian. But that church was a bit of a historical cul-de-sac: it didn’t lead to a denomination and didn’t generate any other Unitarian churches. The Unitarianism from which we today descend came out of Boston, not Philadelphia, and it came from Puritan congregational churches around Boston adopting Unitarian theology.

The Plymouth colony, begun in 1620, and the Massachusetts Bay colony, begun in 1630, consisted of religious separatists without a strong political tradition other than the sense of being bound in covenant, as modeled in the Bible. These Puritans felt need for neither a creed nor a specific structure of church governance – after all, they were God’s people bound together by covenant, and that was enough.

We have certainly come a long way from the Puritan Calvinist theology. Where Calvin saw total depravity, we see inherent worth and dignity of every person. Where Calvin taught predestination, we emphasize freedom. For Calvin, the central problem of being human is an inner corruption called sin. For us, the central problem is disconnection in need of loving relationship.

But we retain from those Puritan settler colonists a sense that we are a people of covenant and not of creed.

There was a dark side of the Puritan covenant: namely, that the colonists believed that that their covenants with God made them God’s chosen people and therefore justified exterminating the indigenous people who were outside of the covenant. Still, creedlessness and covenant – albeit an open and welcoming covenant – continue to be central to Unitarian Universalism today.

NEXT: The Cambridge Platform: 1648

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