History of the origin of the Unitarian Church

By H H Mohrmen

In a week from now the Unitarians in the Khasi and Jaintia hills and Karbi Anglong will celebrate the Church’s 129th birth anniversary on the 18 of September. However, despite its long eventful existence, being a non-proselytizing church, Unitarian remains a lesser known religious organization. Despite its unique local history specific to area, the Unitarian Church remained secluded only amongst the members of the church. This also reminds me of the incident during a seminar at the North Eastern Hill University (NEHU) when a wise professor in the department of history asked me about the origin of the church and wondered if the church traces its origin to the Deist. Obviously only a handful of people know about the church. Hence the credit for this article goes to her and I must thank the professor for that.

There are many definitions on the meaning of the word Unitarian but suffice it to say that it differs in many ways from the three predominantly monotheistic religions in the world. In all its traditions and forms, it is a church which owes its origin to the Judeo-Christian tradition, but the church which upheld the unitary nature of God and also maintained the liberal outlook which makes it different from the other denominations.

History tells us that people with Unitarian outlook appeared in different parts of the world at different points of time. One such event was the history of Akhenaton (? – 1336/34 BCE) an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh who earned the ire of his priest demoted all gods even popular ones to the status of mere manifestations of the one God he recognized and worshipped. It can therefore be concluded that it was Akhenaton who discovered and invented monotheism by elevating the Sun God, Aton to the status of sole divine ruler. But on his demise the priests regain their influence and were able to convince his half brother who inherited the throne to revert to the ancient faith also giving him the name Tutankhamen which also means reinstating the glory to the gods, Amen. But about five hundred years after Akhenaton’s death the worship of one God was rediscovered and reinvented by the Hebrews.

It is also interesting to note how the human concept of God changed with time and it began with cave dwellers who worshipped according to them, the greatest imaginable power which is nature. Then to the hunters and masters of fire, God was fire and later when agriculture replaced hunting and gathering, God became Goddess of fecundity, procreation, birth and life. This was followed by the history of the city state when God became Lord and King Protector and enforcer, leader and judge.

The Hebrews believe that their God and King were the only principalities and Isaiah was the first prophet who called God, ‘Father,’ when he said, ‘You are the Father.’ But it was Jesus who spoke of one God who is Abba or daddy to be precise. But according to Jesus, God is not only beyond us but also within us, participating in our love for others and in our quest for Justice and this is the concept of God the that the Unitarians believe in.

The Unitarians believe that their history goes back to the Apostolic Age,- the life of Jesus and the decades immediately after his death, and they also claim that this doctrine was widespread during the pre-Nicene period, that is, before the First Council of Nicaea met in 325 CE. There are some Jewish-Christian congregations in the late first and early second centuries which hold the view that Jesus was a great man and prophet, even the Son of God, but not God himself. The earliest controversies over the nature of Christ broke out at Rome during the episcopate of Victor I (189–199) (Wikipedia). The controversy called ‘Monarchian’ propagate by Paul Samosata bishop of Antioch which emphasized on God being one, originated in a revolt against the influential Logos theology of Justin Martyr. Then there was another group called the ‘adoptionists,’ led by Theodotus of Byzantium and Artemon because they suggested that Jesus was adopted by the Father to be his Son. So, even in the early Christian period we find evidence of proto-Arianism though they were not fully formed, but the truth is that both of these theologies have similarities to latter day Unitarianism.

Then later in the history of the church there was the Arian movement which occurred more than three hundred years after the death of Jesus under the leadership of Arius (CE 250–336) hence the name Arian. Arius a Christian presbyter in AlexandriaEgypt believed that God the Son came after God the Father in time and substance and in his own word said “If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident, that there was a time when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows, that he had his substance from nothing.”

The controversy compelled the church to convene its first ever council at Nicaea in 325 CE and at the end of the debate the group led by the young archdeacon Athanasius which upheld the notion that Christ was co-eternal and con-substantial with the Father won with the support of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great who converted to Christianity only in 313 CE. The issue was considered settled and the adoption of Bishop Alexander of Alexandria’s view became the orthodox doctrine known as Nicene Creed and all other views were considered heresy and officially suppressed.

However, during the reign of the emperor Constantius II, the anti-Nicene party rose to prominence and exercised considerable influence over the church for about a generation. But when Theodosius  the first’s reign he was able to revert the situation to the post Nicene period. At the Council of Constantinople in 381, the position that the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost were all the same being was agreed upon, and the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity was complete and all Non-trinitarian forms of Christianity were outlawed by Theodosius.

Later during protestant reformation; Michael Servetus (1511?–1553) who is a polymath developed a non-trinatarian Christology and in July 1531, Servetus published De Trinitatis Erroribus (On the Errors of the Trinity). The next year he published another work; Dialogorum de Trinitate (Dialogues on the Trinity) and the supplementary work De Iustitia Regni Christi (On the Justice of Christ‘s Reign) in the same volume. In 1553 Michael Servetus published yet another religious work with further anti-trinitarian views. It was entitled Christianismi Restitutio (The Restoration of Christianity), a work that sharply rejected the idea of predestination as the idea that God condemned souls to Hell regardless of worth or merit. Michael Servetus was arrested, imprisoned and burned at stake for his belief in Geneva.

Nowadays most Unitarians see Servetus as their pioneer and first martyr, and his thought had influenced  the beginnings of Polish and Transylvanian Anti-trinitarian churches. The term “Unitarian” first appeared as unitaria religio in a document of the Diet of Lécfalva Transylvania on 25 October 1600, though it was not widely used in Transylvania until 1638, when the formal recepta Unitaria Religio was published. In Poland, the Polish Brethren began as a grouping of Arians and Unitarians who split from the Polish Calvinist Church in 1565, and by 1580 the Unitarian views of Fausto Sozzini (also known as Socinian) had become the majority in the country. Sozzini’s grandson Andrzej Wiszowaty Sr. in 1665-1668 published Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum quos Unitarios vocant (Library of the Polish Brethren who are called Unitarians 4 vols. 1665–69). The name was introduced in English by the Socinian Henry Hedworth in 1673. Thereafter the term became common currency in English, though their detractors continued to label both Arian and Unitarian views as ‘Socinian.’

Unitarianism which started in Europe spread to England and USA from where it spread around the World including India. The story of the beginning of the church in India is also unique because the churches started independently. The first church was established in Madras more than two hundred years ago by a Tamilian and the church in the hills was started by a native of the place Hajom Kissor Singh Lyngdoh Nongbri on September 18, 1887 independent of the other. Christian deist like Thomas Jefferson have some connection with the Unitarians and they honour the Jefferson’s Bible but they do not believe God is like a clock maker.

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