After I presented my paper in a seminar on intellectual history at NEHU, during the question-answer session a wise professor of the history department asked me, “Where do Unitarian’s trace their origin? Or what is the origin of the Unitarian Church? As a matter of fact it was not a question I had expected but no doubt an interesting one.
One of my favourite books is also a New York Times best seller titled ‘The history of God,’ by Karen Armstrong. Armstrong a renowned scholar of the history of religions said in her book that her study of religions has revealed that human beings are spiritual animals. There is a uniqueness about humans in that they experience the sense of wonder and awe and they demonstrate this in their work of art and religions. In fact Karen observed that humans started using religion and art round about the same time that they developed their faculty to appreciate the beauty and wonder around them. Since then, humans started to use both art and religion as tools to attempt to find meaning and value in life. When humans started to experience this awe they started to worship one God much before they worshipped numerous gods and goddesses.
Armstrong also mentioned that Father Wilhelm Schmidt had suggested in his book ‘The origin of the idea of God,’ that there had been a primitive monotheism before men and women started to worship a number of gods. This God is a supreme deity, creator of heaven and earth and he governs all human affairs. He is also known as high God or Sky God who watches over humans and punishes wrong doers. As time passed this Sky God gave way to the worshipping of many gods and this is seen even among the Pnars of Jaintia Hills. The celebration of Behdienkhlam is one such example. The festival is celebrated for 4 days and three nights when the Creator is believed to descend to the earth to be with human beings.
Gradually people started to personify the unseen force like the wind, the sun, the sea, the stars, thunder etc and gave them human characteristics and worshipped them. In Jaintia hills u Pyrthat (the thunder god) is worshipped along with the gods and goddesses believed to dwell in nature. People started to pay obeisance to the spirit they believe dwells in nature and natural phenomenon like rivers, falls, hills and mountains etc. In the Paleolithic period when agriculture developed people started to realize the importance of fertility of the land they depended on for their livelihood so they began to worship the god of fertility or the mother goddess. Interestingly this goddess is represented by the image of a naked, pregnant woman in Europe, Middle East and India.
Later on, in the Judeo-Christian context the call to worship one God began with the Patriarch Abraham worshipping one God he calls El Shaddai. He was followed by Moses who liberated his people from Egypt with the help of the one God he called Yahweh and Moses insisted that God can only be called by one name and that is Yahweh.
Later, Jesus Christ came with his teaching to love God and to love one’s neighbours. These are the two most important commandments he said. He also preached of a loving God who he called Father in heaven, hence the Unitarian considers Jesus as the greatest of the teachers who taught people to worship one God.
History has it that three hundred and twenty years after Jesus died, the early Christians were divided in their beliefs as they were separated in the places where they were located from Egypt to Syria and Asia Minor. They had no common doctrine. Evidences are available that different churches even used different gospels, till the book was canonized. A section of the church under the leadership of a young presbyter of Alexandria by the name of Arius led a movement of a group of the early Christians who believed that Jesus is not of the same substance with God. Arius’ question which bishop Alexander realized he cannot ignore is ‘how can Jesus be God in the same way as God the Father?’ Arius did not deny the divinity of Christ but insisted that the Father was greater than He. Armstrong mentioned in her book that the idea was put to music and the issue was discussed like the people would discuss football today. It was also informed that the controversy reached such a height that emperor Constantine himself had to intervene and summoned a synod in Nicaea only to realize that the churches do not have an official position on the issue raised by Arius and more importantly even Origen held a similar doctrine. The prominent member of the group who were of the view contrary to that of Arius was Athanasius. History also has it that on the May 22, 325 AD, when the bishops gathered at Nicaea majority of the bishops held a view midway between that of Athanasius and Arius. But the debate was finally closed with Athanasius able to get the support of the emperor and only Arius and two of his companions refused to sign the creed. The creed which says: ‘We believe in one God… and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God… and we believe in the Holy Spirit.’ Though the creed signed and adopted in Nicaea but it is not the Nicene Creed per-se. The Nicene Creed was only adopted in the year 381 at the Council in Constantinople.
In Europe Unitarians also trace their origin to Michael Servetus (1510-53) who wrote the book Errors of the Trinity in the year 1531. Servetus was burned at the stakes in Geneva ironically by the reformers in Geneva in the year 1553. It was a preacher in Transylvania which is now part of Romania who first used the word ‘Unitaria’ to describe the people who rejected Trinity and believed in one God. In the year 1566 Francis David preached against the doctrine of Trinity and was able to convince the king of Transylvania, John Sigismund to adopt Unitarianism. John Sigismund was also the first king to adopt a kind of religious toleration when he proclaimed the law allowing freedom of religious beliefs in his country in the year 1568 which is known as ‘Diet of Torda’. To cut the long history short, Unitarian churches then began to emerge in many countries like England, USA etc.
In India the first Unitarian Church was started by a low caste Tamil Hindu Moodelliar Vellagha who on becoming Unitarian changed his name to William Robert. He came in contact with the British Unitarian in the year 1816 but it was in December 19, 1813 that he started the Unitarian Christian Church in Madras. In Khasi Jaintia Hills and Mikir hills (now Karbi Anglong District of Assam) a Khasi person by the name of Hajom Kissor Singh Lyngdoh Nongbri and three of his followers, ka Hirbon Lakadong, u Kat Shylla and u Mar Sutnga founded the Unitarian faith in Jowai on September 18, 1887. The story of H.K.Singh Lyngdoh Nongbri’s tryst with Unitarianism is also similar to the experiences that his predecessors like Arius and William Roberts experienced. H.K.Singh was not comfortable with his beliefs and this made him question the Trinity. His personal understanding is that there is only one God, whom Jesus called father in heaven and who the Khasi Pnar called U Blei Nongbuh Nongthaw. He later came into contact with Unitarianism and decided that he had found his spiritual home and committed himself to the propagation of Unitarianism in the region.
H.K.Singh Lyngdoh Nongbri believed that monotheism was a marriage of the Father in Heaven whom Jesus worshipped and later taught his disciples to pray to (in the Lord’s prayer) and the Creator God of the Khasi Pnar. He even went a step further and called God our father and mother. The history of Unitarian church is therefore the story of humans experiencing the one God which differs from one culture to another and the one God which humans have worshipped since the dawn of human existence.