Many people think that the Pagan or Earth Spirit element in Unitarianism started around 1980 with the foundation of CUUPs (Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans) in America. In fact, it has its roots in some much earlier developments.
Michael Servetus (often regarded as the first Unitarian martyr) decided on the unity of God in part because he had been readingHermetic texts, according to Earl Morse Wilbur, author of a history of Unitarianism in two volumes. The Hermetic texts were a loose compendium of Platonist and Neo-Platonist texts from late antiquity (the last days of the ancient pagan world). Certainly some pagan thinkers of antiquity (such as Socrates) insisted on the unity of the Divine. Another notable pagan thinker of late antiquity was Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, who pleaded for religious tolerance for pagans in the face of Christian intolerance:
“Everything is full of gods. Whatever men worship, it may fairly be called one and the same. We all look up to the same stars; the same heaven is above us all; the same universe surrounds every one of us. What does it matter by what system of knowledge each one of us seeks the truth? It is not by one single path that we attain to so great a secret.” – Quintus Aurelius Symmachus
Paganism is generally tolerant of different viewpoints because most Pagans believe that everyone has their own unique path to walk, and that there is a vast array of deities. Unitarians are tolerant because they tend to believe that everyone’s experience is unique and different religions are different perspectives on the same underlying reality.
When Unitarianism in Britain officially began, it was not long before it attracted the attention of one Iolo Morganwg, who had earlier written a huge collection of material for the nascent Druid movement, and went on to become a Unitarian minister and to write many of the hymns used in the Welsh Unitarian hymnbook. At that time ancient druidry was thought to have been a debased form of the Hebrew religion, brought to Britain by the Phoenicians, so it is hardly surprising that Morganwg became interested in Unitarianism. Nevertheless, the Druid movement of which he was one of the founders has evolved into the modern Pagan Druid movement.
The most obvious way in which Unitarianism has influenced contemporary Paganism is through the Transcendentalists (a group of Unitarians from New England).Ralph Waldo Emerson, who began the Transcendentalist movement, had read the writings ofRammohun Roy, and was deeply influenced by them. Emerson’s own writings were widely read, and he became friends with Walt Whitman, who corresponded with Edward Carpenter, a gay Pagan socialist vegetarian whose writings were influential in the Pagan movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is probably because of the Transcendentalists that Paganism has so often been referred to as a “Nature religion” according to Chas Clifton, an American scholar of Pagan Studies. Most Pagans and many Unitarians believe that the Divine (or deities) is/are immanent in the world; an important prerequisite for treating the planet with respect.
Esoteric ideas were quite common among late nineteenth century Unitarians. For instance, Unitarians had dialogue with theTheosophists; and some of the writings of Unitarians (such as Gertrude von Petzold) used similar language and concepts to that of esoteric Christians, occultists and “neo-pagans” of the period, which suggests that they were in contact – reading each other’s writings, and perhaps corresponding or meeting.
When the Unitarian chalice symbol was designed by Hans Deutsch in the 1940s, it was intended to reflect both the altar flames of ancient pagan Greece and the communion chalice of the Hussite movement, a Protestant group founded by Jan Hus, who gave communion in both kinds (bread and wine) to his congregation; previously the laity were only allowed to receive the bread.
So, pagan and pantheist ideas have been in circulation in Unitarianism since it began; they are not a recent introduction, but an integral part of Unitarian engagement with the world, because both Paganism and Unitarianism are world-affirming.