UNITARIANISM: THE SAGA OF A FREE SPIRIT.
The History of a Liberal religion is not something that happened at a wave of a hand. Infact it is the evolution of human being itself. It is a phenomenon that began at the dawn of the civilization when people protested against conformity, superstition, oppression and injustice. When Socrates in the Ancient Athen said to Crito “Do not mind whether the teachers of Philosophy are good or bad, but think only of Philosophy herself. Try to examine her well and truly; and if she be evil, seek to turn all away from her, but if she be what I believe she is, then follow her and serve, and be of good cheer”… He infact layed the first foundation step of free and rational search for truth. Truth to a liberal religionist is not an exclusive right of one generation, one race, one religion, or one Philosophy for that matter. A liberal religion like Unitarianism lays great emphasis on a rational and free search fr truth.Truth is also very dear to Unitarians as it was then to Aristotle in the ancient Greek when he said “Plato is dear to me but dearer still is truth.” Unitarianism therefore owes this rich tradition of loving truth and nothing but the truth and the free and rational way of attaining it; to our ancient Athen ancestors.
The root of this Liberal religion is also firm in the Jewish tradition. Unitarians hold in high esteem the teachings of the Prophets of ancient Isreal like Amos, Isaiah, Jermaiah, Micah and a galaxy of others. Their Prophetic teaching on the ethics of working humbly, doing justice, mercy and to love and serve fellow human beings is highly revered by the Unitarians. The most honoured name in the Judeo-Christian heritage of Unitarianism is the second Micah. The book of Micah chapter six is considered to be the high point of old Testament Religion, because it turns religion from the external form to internal faith which inspires and guides People. He said “…Where with Shall I come before him with burn offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams or ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the Sin of my Soul? He had showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.
Unitarians believe Jesus to be one of the greatest teachers, and the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount are the epitome of his teachings. As a matter of fact for more than three hundred years after Jesus was crucified, the early Christians were neither Unitarian (Monotheist) nor Trinitarians. There were no specific doctrine (s) or creed(s) that was unanimous to all. It was not till 325 (Common Era) C.E that the issue on the nature of God was brought to the lime light by a young Charismatic leader named Arius. Emperor Constantine who himself was a recent convert saw that the issue could be a thread to the Roman Empire, summoned a council in Nicea on May 20,325. It was on this council that Jesus was voted with a royal Patronage (Constantine) to be of the same substance with God. How ever, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit was incorporated as Christian dogmas half a century later in Constantinople to complete the holy trinity. Thus on the above notes the Christian Heritage of Unitarianism is a complex situation, the answer to the question whether Unitarians are Christians or not depends on ones idea of Christianity.
Unitarians not only owes its origin to these three great tradition of the world but the path to its development is stained-red with bloods of its Martyrs. From Socrates unlimited and rational search for truth to the present generation’s fight for justice, toleration and freedom of human conscience, the path is not a plain sailing. Arius and his followers called Arians were executed and have to go underground after the council of Nicea.The Martyrdom of Micheal Servetus who was born in 1511 was a landmark in the annals of Unitarian history. A Youthful and vigourous Servetus published his book “On the errors of the trinity” in 1531, it was a stringent denunciation of the dogma of trinity as upheld by both the reformers and the Catholics authority. The book was selling like hot cakes and swiftly spread to Switzerland, Germany and Italy. Luther and the Church condemned Servetus work, his book was banned by the Church authority. The suppression was so successful that 25 years later when Servetus was put on trial for blasphemy not a single copy could be found to use in the court. The Irony of the ironies is that Micheal Servetus was not condemned and burnt at stake by any other people but by the great reformers John Calvin in Geneva 1553. Constellio one of Calvin’s lieutenant remarked; “To burn a man alive does not defend a doctrine. It slays a person.” At a site near Servetus was burned there was a memorial stone with an inscription saying it was erected by the spiritual heirs of John Calvin and that a great wrong was committed in the case of Servetus’ the gospel can only be preached authentically where freedom of conscience is respected.
The anti-trinitarian movement flourished in Poland under the leadership of Foustus Socinus who was born in 1539. The movement which based its Principles on Liberty, reason and tolerance spread rapidly, the movement was eventually condemned and its followers were persecuted under the Jesuit leadership. Church records were burned and believers were exterminated under the Polish Diet which was passed in the 1658. Socinus himself was attacted in the street of Krakow, his face was smeared and his mouth filled with mud, the assult first left him broken then dead. With his dead Socinian movement a liberal religious movement was completely wiped out in Poland.
The Liberal movement in Transylvania was led by a Charismatic leader who converted from Fraciscan Chatholicism to Lutheran then to Calvanism and finally to Unitarianism. Francis David was one of an outstanding religious figure of Transylvania. Under his able guidance he influenced King John Sigismund (the only Unitarian King in the History) of Transylvania to issue western world’s first edict to religious freedom and toleration in the 1568. It reads “Preachers shall be allowed to preach the Gospel everywhere, each according to his own understanding of it. If the community wish to accept such preaching, well and good; if not, they shall not be compelled, but shall be allowed to keep the preacher they prefer. No one shall be made to suffer on account of religion, since faith is the gift of God.” This Bill of right is a landmark in the history of the western world.
The adventure of Unitarian movement in England was more peaceful compared to that in the Continent. The first Church in England was perhaps the one called “The Church of Stranger” in London in 1550. Later on in 1599 and 1601 John Robinson founded the Dissenting Church at Gainsborough and the Pilgrim Church in Scrooby. It was only in 1701 that the Act of toleration allowed Unitarians to worship openly but not to own property or to hold public offices. John Biddle is considered to be the earliest martyr of conscience in England. Biddle wrote his “Twelve Arguments Drawn from Scripture, where in the commonly Held notion touching the Deity of Holy Spirit is clearly refuted,” after publishing this book was arrested as heretic. In 1648 he wrote from his dungeon another book. “A confession of faith touching the trinity”, in which like Servetus he refuted the Biblical foundation of the Church doctrines. He spend almost his entire life in jail for his herecy, he was only released in 1652. The person that can be accredited as actual founder of Unitarianism in England was T. Lindsay an Anglican cleric who turned liberal. He conducted the first official Unitarian Service in a London auction room on the 17th of April 1774, the congregation included Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Priestly.
The Unitarian movement in England was star-studded; apart from the imminent scientist like Sir Issac Newton and Joseph Priestly it also included Charles Darvin famous for his theory of Evolution. A galaxy of prominent persons in the English literary world were also Unitarians, John Milton in his “areopagitica” he wrote one of the great credos for freedom of religions publishing. John Locke, the author of the Essay concerning Human Understanding” smuggled both his and Sir Issac Newton’s document on Unitarianism for publishing in France. Publishing of Unitarians “Confession of an Inquiring Spirit” publishing in 1840 and Charles Dicken the great English Novelist were also Unitarians. Florence Nightingale famed as lady with a lamb for her untiring work in the Crimean war was a Unitarian.
Across the Atlantic in the New-World, the liberal breeze has already blown gently through the doors of Calvanism in the pre-Revolutionary Colonies, the fertile land awaited for the arrival of Joseph Priestly who was discouraged by the political and ecelesiatical climate of his country at that time. Invited by his good friend Thomas Jefferson he sailed to America in 1794. The first Unitarian Church in USA was the Kings Chapel in Boston which is also one of Boston city’s Landmark. It was 1785 that his whole Church of England congregation adopted Unitarian Principle and become a Unitarian Church.
In the following generation Ralph Waldo Emerson who was a Unitarian and later decided to use his talent to tour addresses and famous of all the Divinity School address, “Dr Albert Sweitzer who spends his later life in Africa and wrote his famous book “In search of the historical Jesus” was also a Unitarian.
The saga of a free Spirit is not exclusive to the western World alone, in India the great reformer Raja Ram Mohon Roy the founder of Brahmo Samaj was greatly influenced by the Unitarians and the Noble laureate poet Rabindra Nath Tagore. In the Khasi Hills a Native Khasi, like many of his fore runners in the western world relized that the doctrine of trinity is rather unscriptural left his Calvanist faith and started a “Ka Niam Mane Wei Blei.” It was later on through his friends he came in contact with people on the other side of the Globe called Unitarians who believe exactly as he did, he eventually called himself and his group Unitarians. It was on the 18h Sept 1887 that Hajom Kissor Singh (brother of Nissor Singh) founded his “Ka Niam Mane Wei Blei” in Jowai. The day is being celebrated by Unitarians in the Khasi Jaintia Hills and Karbi Anglong every year as the Anniversary day. The adventure of H.K.Singh was not free from condemnation he was brand “Len Blei” (Heretic) by his friends, even a Church was not spared, a that roof Church was burned to ashes.
On the occasion of Unitarian Anniversary day on the 18 September, Unitarians in the Khasi Jaintia Hills pay homage to their departed leaders the torch bearer of this faith and pray for the World free from religious bigotry and intolerances.