In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Unitarianism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • American Unitarian History
  • Religion and Philosophy
  • Education and Science
  • Political Economy, Social Reform, and Politics
  • Social and Educational Ideas in Literature

Victorian Literature Unitarianism
Ruth Watts
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 May 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0121


Very much a minority religion and often despised by other Christian groups, Unitarianism nevertheless was a potent force in the religious, educational, cultural, social, economic, and political life of those places in which it flourished, particularly Britain and the United States. In Britain it emerged from 18th century Rational Dissent, but although British thinkers had influence in the United States, Unitarianism there evolved from its own responses to religious questioning and Biblical criticism, as it did elsewhere. As an open religion, insistent on the right of all to free enquiry in religion, Unitarianism had no set creeds and throughout the 19th century was subject to varying internal divisions. Yet Unitarians were characterized by their denial of the Trinity and of original sin, their affirmation of applying reason to the scriptures as to everything else, and their quest for moral order and perfection. A deep belief in rational education as a prerequisite for all if they were to obtain true morality and religion underpinned their huge commitment to educational ventures and social reform, including greater equality for women than was the norm. It helped them to be in the vanguard of new ideas in Biblical criticism, philosophy, science, and literature. At the same time, since their leaders tended mostly to come from the new urban commercial and industrial elites, their social philosophy was pervaded or tinged with social and economic prejudices that indicated their class. The contribution of Unitarians to theology, education, culture, social reform, economic thinking, and local and national politics, particularly in Britain and the United States, makes a study of them essential for understanding 19th century history. Understanding them in all these contexts means there is a wide range of literature to choose from. The focus throughout this article will be chiefly on Britain and the United States, although there are more references to the former. Other countries are included in the General Overviews. Many citations are relevant under several headings, so the commentary will direct readers to other sections when necessary. Many standard works by or on Unitarians are now available on the web, and this is signposted on the citation. This is an ongoing process, so scholars would be advised to check regularly to see if such works are online.

General Overviews

Some of the standard works are quite old but are still useful and have been supplemented by a growing wealth of material and fresh interpretation in recent years. Both Wilbur and Watts broke new ground in historical studies on Unitarianism in their time. Both synthesized and critiqued previous work and integrated their own substantial researches into this. As such, they are indispensable for scholarly investigations of Unitarianism, and in each case both of their volumes have been included. The most readable and concise overview is Smith 2006, which provides extensive leads to further work. Smith 2006, Wilbur 1946, and Wilbur 1952 cover Unitarianism in Europe, Britain, and America and indicate the interrelationships among them. Wigmore-Beddoes 1971 is useful for seeing the affinities of liberal approaches to religion. Dr Williams’s Centre for Dissenting Studies documents Dissenting Academies up until the late 19th century, and although only a few of these were run by Unitarians, the wealth of information on them is an important starting point for studying developments in the religious, intellectual, social, and cultural history of the institutions, their tutors, and students, people who provided much of the backbone of Unitarianism.

  • Dr Williams’s Centre for Dissenting Studies.

    Has brilliant web facilities, based on Dr. Williams’s Library’s unique collections. Dissenting Academies Online draws on long-neglected records to give, through its Database and Encyclopedia and the Virtual Library System, an indispensable guide to over two hundred nonconformist academies, their history, tutors, and students.

  • Smith, Leonard. The Unitarians: A Short History. Providence, RI: Blackstone, 2006.

    Clear, succinct history of the origins of and developments in Unitarianism in Europe, Britain, and America; refers to the latest interpretations but also based on older, established histories, such as Earl Morse Wilbur’s. Shows that the growth of Unitarianism in Asia and Africa has risen from indigenous roots. Excellent comprehensive bibliographical essay appended.

  • Watts, Michael. The Dissenters. Vol. 1, From the Reformation to the French Revolution. Oxford: Clarendon, 1978.

    Succeeds in its aim to synthesize and examine critically the work of scholars of Dissent in the previous sixty years. Integrates the author’s own research into this. Analyzes formative period from the 16th to the 18th century, including emergence of Rational Dissent. Chronological framework with different aspects dealt with in depth in turn.

  • Watts, Michael. The Dissenters. Vol. 2, The Expansion of Evangelical Nonconformity. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.

    Second volume published much later because there was so much material for the years 1791–1859. Focuses on what was representative, supplemented by much contextual evidence through appendices, maps, and tables. Numerous references to Unitarians who are thus seen in their economical, geographical, social, and religious context.

  • Wigmore-Beddoes, Dennis G. Yesterday’s Radicals: A Study of the Affinity Between Unitarianism and Broad Church Anglicanism in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, UK, and London: James Clarke, 1971.

    Traces affinities between the liberal wing of 19th century Unitarianism and Broad Churchmen with critical and liberal attitudes. Examines various aspects of this, concluding that such affinities were grounded in a rationalistic approach (although from separate developments) and moral and religious sensitivity. Useful bibliography of significant English Unitarian theological works.

  • Wilbur, Earl Morse. A History of Unitarianism: Socinianism and Its Antecedents. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1946.

    Comprehensive analysis of rise of Unitarianism from the 16th and 17th centuries. Based on extensive researches in Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere in Europe, using knowledge of nine languages to access long-neglected sources subsequently either lost in World War II or preserved at the author’s college, Starr King School in Berkeley, California.

  • Wilbur, Earl Morse. A History of Unitarianism in Transylvania, England, and America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952.

    This wide-ranging, very detailed account is based on an extensive bibliography, cross-referenced with Wilbur 1946 and, like the former volume, has a Pronouncing Table of Names. Together they form an authoritative history that might be superseded in interpretation and new scholarship but not in range or depth of scholarship.

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