Although the Unitarian and Universalist movements have quite different theological and cultural origins, both tolerate diverse religious beliefs and have tended to be active in social justice movements, including those advocating the abolition of slavery and the equality of civil rights.
Their affinities as theological liberals (who are willing to interpret the Scriptures in nontraditional ways) and activists paved the way for their merger in 1961. Their numbers are relatively few in the South. In 2005 there were 20 Unitarian Universalist societies throughout Georgia, with approximately 2,000 members.
Historically, Unitarians disagreed with the formulation of the Trinity found in the Nicene Creed of A.D. 325. Universalists, on the other hand, disagreed with the concept of eternal damnation, and the movement’s name refers to the adherents’ belief in universal salvation. The two denominations also had different constituencies. In the United States, Unitarians have generally been highly educated. Many of the churches in New England, where Unitarianism originated in the colonies and where it is still most predominant, are descended from Congregationalist churches. Universalism, on the other hand, was a more rural movement, composed primarily of less-educated, working-class people.
The merger of Unitarians and Universalists in 1961 resulted in an eclectic religious community. Contemporary Unitarian Universalism is a noncreedal religion, and members draw inspiration from a variety of religious and secular sources. While some consider themselves to be Christian, many do not, and Unitarian Universalists are bound together by an agreement on how to act rather than on what to believe. Currently, all Unitarian Universalist congregations covenant to uphold thirteen “Principles and Purposes,” including:
—The inherent dignity and worth of every person;
—Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations;
—Acceptance of one another and encouragement of spiritual growth in our congregations;
—A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
—The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.
As these principles and purposes suggest, Unitarian Universalists often continue to be on the forefront of struggles for social justice.
Before the Civil War (1861-65) the only Unitarian churches in Georgia were located in Augusta and Savannah. Following disagreements with the national association of Unitarians over the abolition of slavery, the Augusta church closed in the 1840s, while the Savannah church closed in 1859. Similarly, southern Universalists often differed with their northern counterparts about abolition. There were more small, active Universalist churches than Unitarian churches in Georgia before the war, yet no congregations remained active afterward. A large Universalist missionary effort in the Southeast began in 1891 and attracted many new converts, but after the Great Depression of the 1930s, Universalist membership declined again.
The founder of the original Unitarian church in Atlanta, George Leonard Chaney, established the Church of Our Father (later the United Liberal Church) in 1883. He was active in the cause for the education of freedpeople and helped start several African American universities, including the Atlanta University Center. He also opened the first free lending library for African Americans and for white women in the church building. The former church property is currently the location of the Central Branch of the Atlanta–Fulton County Public Library.
In 1948, however, a schism occurred within the United Liberal Church over the issue of integration. In 1951 the American Unitarian Association (the national body for Unitarians) bought the building of the United Liberal Church and closed down the congregation because it was practicing racial segregation. The church was reestablished in 1954 as an integrated church in a segregated city, and its members became active in the civil rights movement in Atlanta. Civil rights activities included joint youth group meetings with Ebenezer Baptist Church, whose youth group was led by Coretta Scott King, and guest preaching by Martin Luther King Jr.