The roots of the Unitarian movement lie principally in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. At that time, people in many countries across Europe began to claim:
- The right to read and interpret the Bible for themselves.
- The right to seek a direct relationship with God, without the mediation of priest or church.
- The right to set their own conscience against the claims of religious institutions.
Many came to question ‘orthodox’ Christian doctrine and to affirm beliefs of their own. These included:
- The Unity or unipersonality of God, as opposed to the doctrine of the Trinity – hence the name ‘Unitarian’.
- The humanity, as opposed to the deity, of Christ.
- The worth of human beings, as opposed to ideas of original sin, inherited guilt and innate depravity.
- The universal salvation of all souls, as opposed to the doctrine that most of humanity is predestined to damnation.
The earliest organised Unitarian movements were founded in the 16th century in Poland and Transylvania. In Britain, a number of early radical reformers professed Unitarian beliefs in the 16th and 17th centuries, some suffering imprisonment and martyrdom. An organised Unitarian movement did not emerge in Britain until the late 18th century. The first Unitarian church in Britain was opened in Essex Street, London, in 1774. Denominational structures were developed during the 19th century, finally uniting in the present General Assembly in 1928. Today Unitarian movements exist in a number of countries around the world. Most originated independently by processes of spiritual evolution similar to that which occurred in Britain.