When Is a Person a Unitarian?


Being a Sermon Preached by the Minister

W. Waldemar W. Argow, Th.D.




The May Memorial Church







Published by







The May Memorial Pulpit, by tradition and practice, is a free platform, dedicated to the ideal of truth. Its addresses and ser­mons in both their spoken and written form, are the utterances of the speaker, who accepts for them exclusive responsibility.


When Is a Person a Unitarian?

By way of contrast, one may ask, when is a person an American? The law says that one becomes an American when one is born under the American flag. But being an American is something vastly more than a matter of birth. Shall we say that one is an American if he believes in the infallibility of the Constitution; or that he believes Wash­ington was a greater man than Lincoln; or again when he believes in the divine right of the tariff? It ought to be apparent that being an American is not a matter of birth, or of certain arbitrary beliefs. Indeed, being an American is to cherish certain ideals of life, and at the same time to believe that these ideals can best come to fruition in the kind of institutions which America embodies. Thus, being an American is an attitude of the mind, a disposition of the heart and a certain devotion to a particular ideal of life. So conceived, it is possible to find men and women living in other countries who are Americans at heart, tho they may never have gone thru the formality of being "naturalized." Contrarywise, there are many persons born under the American flag, who are not Americans at all; they have never caught the inward meaning of what America is.

When, therefore, one asks the question, when is a person a Unitarian, one begins to see, that, like being an American, it is not a matter of birth, nor of formality, nor yet again of belief, but a disposition of the soul and an atti­tude of the mind. This makes Unitarianism a living thing that is not dependent upon any age, nor any place, nor yet again on any race.

Unitarianism is a living and growing thing. Its roots go back into the earliest dawn of history. Indeed, Uni­tarianism is as old as civilization. This does not mean that the Unitarian Church has had so long and venerable a history. What it does mean is that the attitude of mind which formed the Unitarian Church was shared by man in the earliest dawn of civilization. When one traces back thru history the mental attitudes that have predominated, one will discover, that roughly speaking there are two; they are the liberal and conservative attitudes. These two atti­tudes have found expression in every phase of life and in every field of endeavor. The persons who had the conserva­tive point of view were the ones who wanted everything to remain just as it had always been. They discouraged every new method of doing and saying anything differently than it had been done and said before. They imagined that every change was dangerous; that it was disrespectful to the elders, and that it was upsetting ancient customs and habits of behavior. The liberal attitude on the other hand was one which caused men to experiment with new ideals, new meth­ods and new plans. It was this attitude that led men to make discoveries and improvements in all the various phases of life--it mattered not if it was in the field of transportation when they fashioned the wheel which replaced skids, or in the field of social organization where the method of tax gathering was improved. We today are wholly indebted to all men and women with the liberal attitude who dared to do and say anything in a different way than it had always been done or said. Without them we would still be naked savages living in caves and seeking to keep ourselves warm with a few skins.

It is well, therefore, to bear in mind that thruout all history there ran these two contending forces--the liberal and conservative. If we bear this in mind it will be much easier to understand what Unitarianism is. For Unitarianism is a modern name for something that has been at work in the world for countless centuries, yea, even since the dawn ­of human history.

As one travels backward over the centuries, one of the first liberals we meet is the great Hammurabi of Babylon, whose code represents the first attempt to codify a grow­ing sense of justice in its application to human rights. When one stops to consider that in 2400 B.C. one man dared to challenge the legal and ceremonial laws of his day, when for ages upon ages custom had dictated that the individual had no rights, it is indeed refreshing.

In the 16th Century B. C. we meet another liberal. This time it is the good Akhenaten of Egypt, who in turn rewrote the code of Egypt in the light of a widening sense of justice, giving the spirit of man a larger freedom. Eight centuries later we meet Moses, who broadened the legal code of Akhenaten. For be it remembered, that the Mosiac code was based upon that of Ahkenaten, and his in turn upon that of Hammurabi.

Communication and all interchange of ideas in that far­away day was most primitive. It was therefore with great difficulty that ideas filtered from one land into another. But they did! For over in China we find Confucius contending against the conservatives of his country; and in India we find the great and good king, Asoka, overthrowing cramp­ing customs, while at the same time Buddha came out boldly demanding a widening of man's conception of right and jus­tice. Again, in Persia we meet Zoroaster coming to grips with the religious and political stand-patters of his land, demanding that they give the human spirit an opportunity for self expression.

When we go back to the Jewish tradition we meet Isaiah, Amos Micah, and at last, Jesus, each successively crying out against narrowness and demanding that what really mattered was to "do justly and love mercy," and to forget the detailed observance of the letter.

Thus far we have seen that all down thru so-called ancient history two contending forces have vied with one another; always did the liberalizing force prevail, but some­times only at great cost. Naturally these two attitudes of mind gave birth to two distinct professions, which again became distinct attitudes of mind. The conservative attitude produced the priest, while the liberal attitude produced the prophet. These two, the priest and the prophet, represent the function that certain types of men assumed in state craft, in religion, in social custom, in domestic relations and in all the realms of human endeavor.

The priestly function is to keep things just as they have always been. The priest concerns himself first and last with ceremonies, ritual, belief, dogma, and refuses to digress one iota from the letter of the law. He always tries to cut the baby to the pattern. Ever and always he wants regularity, conformity and docile obedience to custom and tradition. Any attempt at individual expression is frowned upon at once.

The prophet on the other hand is the direct opposite of the priest. He is interested in searching and experimenting with the hope that improvement in methods may be found, and that thru this the mind and spirit of man may come to a larger expression of the powers within it. The priest is concerned with the perpetuity of institutions, no matter what happens to the individual; whereas the prophet on the other hand is concerned first and last with human beings. He in­sists that institutions must be changed to assist the emanci­pation of men, and then he proceeds to do that by an orderly process.

Let us bear in mind that after the death of Jesus and the birth of the Christian Church these two tendencies, the priestly and prophetic, came into conflict, one with the other, and thus determined the kind of Christianity that has come down to us. After all, it is nothing more than the two contending forces of liberalism and conservatism which we traced from early dawn down to Jesus, making itself felt in two distinct functions.

With the death of Jesus, and the subsequent dispersion of the Disciples, there appeared the priest who insisted upon conformity to certain rites, rituals and ceremonies which had been practiced. Likewise, then appeared also the prophet, who demanded that as the mind of man found new truth then old beliefs and practices should be changed. So the first of these prophets we meet is Polycarp, who was a Disciple of the Beloved John, the Disciple of Jesus. He was succeeded by Irenaeus and Eusebius, each of who demanded a wider charity in the application of the teachings of Jesus.

Then the contest waxed hot between Orgin, the prophet, and Tertullian, the priest, with the latter winning the day. It was not however until Arius appeared with his widening charity that we see him challenged by the youthful Athana­sius, who had convinced the Roman Emperor, Comstantine, that the issue must be decided by a council. The work of this council resulted in the banishment of Arius and the subse­quent foisting of what has come to be known as the Athanasian Creed upon the church. From that day forward the priest or conservative was in the ascendancy, and the slow but certain doom of the dark ages began to settle upon western civilization.

There happened then, as always has happened and always will, that here and there the prophetic or liberal spirit could not be crushed. For here and there, we find men and women who braved the fires of persecution, and dared to follow the dictates of their minds. And so we find a youth by the name of Succat, Who since has been called St. Patrick, going into what is now Ireland and bringing a more liberal Christianity to these people. Here it was that he grafted upon the Druid worship of these people a new human religion.

He in turn was followed by Thomas Aquinas in Southern Europe, where with a fine philosophic insight, he made a notable contribution to the liberalizing of Christianity. To this day dear old St. Thomas Aquinas, who has been called "The Dumb Ox of the Lord," stands out as one of the really great minds of all time.

We must not assume that only in the Christian tradition were these prophetic souls alive; for over in India Nanak was busy trying to bring the prophetic spirit to Buddhism, which like Christianity, had degenerated into a priestly religion.

In a few centuries we find the brave Nicon busy in Russia trying to bring to the Greek Orthodox Church a more humane spirit.

Then came the period of the reformers whose names stand out like beacon lights against a terrible darkness: Luther, Zwingly, Calvin, John Knox--names that hush us to prayer!

But something else was happening, too! A springtime was dawning upon the world. The dark night was now being fretted with a coming morn. The Renaissance had just be­gun to send its first gleams upon the horizon, and the liberal prophetic spirit was in the bud. Soon we find Sir Francis Bacon daring to ask questions which a few centuries ago would have cost him his life. Thus, with the appearance of Bacon, the so-called age of science began. What the story is from now on ought to be familiar to most of us.

Suffice it to say that this growing liberal or prophetic spirit made itself known in England, Holland and Germany, where men of philosophic and scientific genius began to loose the human mind from the chains with which the con­servative priestly men had bound it. It was this spirit that made men separatists, driving them from one land to another. Finally a small band of men and women left England and found refuge in Holland, where for a brief time they lived, only to discover that this new freedom was not deeply rooted. Finally in 1620 a few brave souls came to New England and founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

As time went on, the priest and prophet appeared in this new land, and the old round of struggling for freedom had to be carried on again. And so we find the liberals found­ing colleges and all kinds of societies that had as their ob­jective the widening of justice and the broadening of the humane spirit.

It was now that in matters of religion men of the prophetic spirit began to demand that the old doctrines of the reformers, and especially Calvin, were not in keeping with the growing knowledge of men. Hence we find a new group of dissenters within the churches, making themselves felt. Out of them was born what has come to be known as the Unitarian Church, tho this did not take definite form until 1825, when the American Unitarian Association was organized in Boston.

All that has been said of the liberal and prophetic tend­ency in history constitutes the background of the Unitarian Church. The men and women of this tradition are our saints, our spiritual fathers. They are the men and women who have tried to shape institutions for the benefit of man. It matters not if they were the Babylonian King Hamurabi, the Jewish law-giver Moses, the poet Jesus, or the great teacher, William E. Channing--they all spoke a common language, tho children of a different time and culture.

There is one fact we in America need to lay seriously to heart. If it had not been for these liberal prophetic souls in our early history, who challenged the right of men to think and act as to them seemed best, we would have had another Spain with its inquisition, or perhaps another dark age with its cruel blight of superstition. To these liberals we owe what we call the American Spirit of Progressiveness which has made the United States the most forward march­ing group of people on God's green earth. They cast the die into which the American mind was moulded. Without their contribution the United States would be no more than Mexico is today. Therefore, to claim these men of all ages as our spiritual fathers, is to honor the best that our race has produced.

All this somewhat lengthy consideration of the back­ground of the Unitarian tradition was necessary in order to understand what being a Unitarian is. No one can read the graphic story of history without realizing that as Emerson said, "It is not merely the records of events, but the story of human lives writ in letters of fire."

Every now and again someone asks, why does the Uni­tarian Church have no creed and no fixed doctrines to which persons seeking admittance must subscribe? These are all matters of private concern, and should never be made a basis or a test of fellowship. The Unitarian Church is not founded upon uniformity of belief, but upon a unity of purpose and endeavor. Therefore, when a person asks, what am I to believe, we reply, believe whatever to you seems reasonable, right, just, good, true, honorable, beautiful, noble, sublime! Each of us is different; we have a different inheritance, a different background, a different mental equipment; there­fore we are bound to differ in our beliefs and in our interpre­tations. To demand uniformity of belief as a basis of church membership would be the same as if we demanded uniform­ity of belief as a basis of citizenship. As citizens we are united not in uniform beliefs, but in a common desire to do what each believes is right, just, honorable, noble, good.

Thus, briefly stated, being a Unitarian is to cherish a progressive attitude of the mind and a reverent disposition of the heart. For such who have this characteristic, the Unitarian Church is a rallying ground for aspiring, seeking, reverent persons, no matter what their individual beliefs may be.

If however, one wishes a more detailed statement of "When is a person a Unitarian," we may say that when he is intellectually honest. One of the saddest spectacles is to see a man who confesses that he is a progressive-minded person, then to discover that he refuses to identify him­self with those movements that seek to promote a liberal view of life. This is true no less in politics than in religion. When we stop to consider the men and women in this city, as in every other, who are intellectually dishonest, confess­ing one thing with their lips and then supporting institutions which are the direct opposite, one wonders how long it will be before this intellectual dishonesty becomes a moral dis­honesty, wherein they will confess one moral standard then practice another.

To be intellectually honest means that one values truth more than tradition. It means also that one is open-minded to all truth in every realm, and that one seeks the good in every field and in every religion. It means that one values moral integrity more than social approbation or social respectability. So long as one is willing to count the price of what it will cost, rather than what is gained in self-respect; then of course one gets exactly what one has paid--which is the price of one's own integrity.

A person is a Unitarian when he is morally daring. It is not sufficient to know from an intellectual point of view that certain things are wrong; one must do something about it. This can be done in two ways: attack the evil single-handed; or identify oneself with a group that is attempting to create a social conscience which in turn will demand the overthrow of this evil. It is this moral daring that has characterized most Unitarians. The history of Unitarianism in America has been one continuous attack upon the evils that threatened the life of man. Few indeed are the movements for human betterment in America that have not been fostered by Unitarians.

A person is a Unitarian when he is sensitive to all human values, and likewise sensitive to all human hurts. That is why Unitarians have never bothered themselves about creeds and doctrines; they were, and still are, inter­ested in whatever hinders men from enjoying the abundant life. Today, as in former days, the Unitarians are seeking to bring to men and women a new standard of human values wherein injustice, inequality and inhumanity shall be les­sened, and all men, women, and children shall have an equal opportunity to develop to their full capacity.

A person is a Unitarian when he is actively trying to cast out fear. Fear is man's greatest handicap. People are afraid because they do not understand what kind of a Uni­verse they live in. They are afraid because of the kind of God they have been taught from their youth. They are afraid of new ideas because they imagine that the truth will prove to be dangerous and take from them something precious. Therefore, to labor at the task of trying to rid oneself of the fear of thinking, the fear of daring, the fear of adventure and the fear of death, is to be a self-reliant, mature person--­in short it is to be a Unitarian!

Nothing has been said about believing in God, in Jesus, in heaven and hell, and in immortality as conditions that make one a Unitarian. There are all kinds of stages and de­grees of Unitarians. They differ just in proportion as peo­ple differ one from the other, and as flowers differ from each other. There are some who believe much, and some who believe little; but in the great essentials of what makes life wholesome and worthwhile they are all agreed. They are united not in beliefs but in action. Having an open mind and a reverent heart they have associated themselves to­gether in one common desire, namely to make life as whole­some and as beautiful as it can be made on this earth. To that end they encourage research, investigation, experimenta­tion and co-operative action; being assured that with intel­lectual honesty and moral daring the truth, even as the good must at last prevail.

There is another aspect to this matter of being a Uni­tarian: it is its glory! When one knows there is nothing to fear, then one can meet any experience with a calm self­-possession, assured that nothing evil can happen to a good man in life or in death. One will then have courage and enthusiasm to labor for the gradual enthronement of the better, being convinced that the very stars fight for one in their courses. It will give one a sense of patience, because one has come to see that the Eternal Spirit is never in a hurry to fulfill His plans in which "a thousand years are but as yesterday." But greatest of all is the boon that comes when one at last closes one's eyes upon earthly scenes, with the assurance that all's well here and hereafter for ever more! For a religion that teaches men how to die happy and unafraid is one that helps men to live courageously, effec­tively, and triumphantly!


"Call him not heretic whose words attest,

His faith in goodness by no creed confessed;

Whatever in love's name is truly done,

To free the bound and lift the fallen one,

It's done to Christ, Who so in deed and word,

Is not against Him labours for our Lord.

When He who, sad and weary, sought the sisters' door,

One saw the heavenly, one the human guest,

But who shall say which loved the Master best?"



Prepared for web page display on April 1, 2006