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Unitarian Universalist Churches

When I say I work for a church, it usually makes the wrong impression. People are either grossed out by the word "church" or they heartily approve... until I describe my church. Garrison Keillor, who is more or less worshiped by UUs, finds us disgusting. It's very awkward.

But I am proud to be a part of this organization, and I believe its beauty lies in its complex history and unique approach to human betterment.

What is this UU nonsense?

Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal religion, which means its members share a code of conduct toward each other instead of a creedal belief system. UUs covenant to accept one another, regardless of personal beliefs, gender, sexual identity, nationality, ethnicity, economic status, or ability, in a spirit of love. UU churches offer sacred space that is inclusive to people of various religious and non-religious identities, where mixed families and free-thinkers can engage in spiritual practice, truth-seeking, and community-building together. UUs are often at the forefront of public faith movements that stand up for the oppressed.

This goal of universal love stems from the Renaissance. Unitarianism, the oldest root of UUism, was influenced by Humanists, Muslims, and Christians living in the Ottoman Empire.  


Queen Isabella Sforza Szapolyai of Transylvania, a young woman and mother seeking to end inter-religious violence in the 16th century, cleared a political space for liberal theology to flourish. She wrote an Edict of Universal Religious Tolerance in 1557:
            “Inasmuch as We and Our Most serene Son have assented to the most instant supplication of the lords of the realm that each person maintain whatever religious faith he wishes, with old or new rituals, while We at the same time leave it to their judgment to do as they please in the matter of their faith, just so long, however, as they bring no harm to bear on anyone that neither the followers of the new religion are to be a source of irritation to the old, nor are the old in any way to be injurious to the followers of the new . . . ”


With this edict, Queen Isabella bound the many religious factions competing within Transylvania to a common standard of peace and tolerance.

Isabella had been given a Humanist education by her Italian-born mother, Bona Sforza, Queen of Poland. Around the age of 20, Isabella married into a mixed-religion family. Her husband, King John I of Hungary, had been excommunicated from the Catholic Church for collaborating with the Turks.

King John's guardian was Sultan Suleyman of the Ottoman Empire. When King John died shortly after the birth of his son John II, Sultan Suleyman took Isabella and the infant Prince John under his guardianship. He crowned Isabella Queen of Transylvania, a Christian territory which was a tributary state of the Ottoman Empire.

Suleyman's empire allowed for more religious freedom than existed in Western Europe at that time. The Sultan welcomed Jews, radical Christian reformers, and other non-Muslims to seek shelter in his lands, requiring all non-Muslims to pay a special tax but exempting them from military draft.

Sultan Suleyman's most cherished wife, Hurrem, for whom he wrote reams of passionate love poetry, calling her "my love from a different religion," was a Christian woman who, like Isabella, was born in Poland. Together, Sultan Suleyman, Queen Isabella, and other members of their family sought to build peaceful relationships among people of different faiths.

Queen Isabella died young, around the age of 40, but her son, the young King John II, carried on his mother's work by issuing a second Edict of Religious Tolerance in 1568 and installing his court preacher, Ferenc David as "bishop of the Hungarian churches in Transylvania." David was skeptical of Trinitarian doctrines and even of the divinity of Jesus. By the 17th century, a Unitarian Church had been established, with strong theological roots in the teachings of ancient Jews and early Christians.


In the 19th century, the Unitarian Church became established in the United States, where Universalists were already preaching a similar message rooted in early Christian teachings.

The Unitarian Universalist movement formed when the Unitarian Church merged with the Universalist Church in the 1960s. Since the merger, UUism has evolved beyond Christianity into a tradition that embraces wisdom from many religious and philosophical traditions. The late Rev. Forrest Church said, "One Light (Unitarianism) shines through many windows (Universalism), illuminating human minds and hearts in many different ways."

The people who make up UU congregations identify as just UU, Christian, Humanist, Atheist, Pagan, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, other religious identities, and none of the above. Some of our families include members of different faith backgrounds who find a haven where they can all worship together in our churches. Some congregants cherish deeply held religious beliefs, and others describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious," finding a place to explore transcendent experiences and meaningful community without betraying their intellectual integrity or skepticism. We are all united by covenants of mutual respect and intentional relationship.

Five hundred years after its beginning within the Ottoman Empire, the religion now called
Unitarian Universalism remains one of the only religious movements that has not experienced rapid decline as many people withdraw from the authority of organized religion. Through the centuries, UUism remains a beacon of hope for justice, peace, intercultural understanding, inter-religious collaboration, human empathy, critical thinking, and universal love. 

The church that I serve as "Office Assistant" (which, like "church," can mean a whole lot more than what it sounds like) is the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing.

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