History & Philosophy

Home of liberal religion and free-thought in Cambridge since 1904

The church on Emmanuel Road is a beautiful small building inspired by Wren’s chapel at Pembroke College. It dates from 1927. The church, and its handsome hall, common room, kitchen and office (built 1923), is home to a modern, progressive, free-thinking and free-religious community. We seek to offer people committed to the well-being of a secular, scientifically literate and democratic society, ways by which they may continue intelligently to engage with that society’s liberal Christian, radical Enlightenment, religious-naturalist and humanist heritage, as well as with other, non-Christian religious and philosophical traditions, which have contributed so much of worth and value to our modern, cosmopolitan culture.

We do this by offering people opportunities for personal, intellectual and spiritual growth within a welcoming, supportive, conversational community that attempts always to be kindly, lively, open-minded and truthful.

Here there is only one orthodoxy, namely, a love of truth that is a sincere desire to understand how the world is and our place in it.

Foundation of the Cambridge Unitarian Church

The Cambridge congregation was not formally founded until 1904 following a series of lectures on The Historical Jesus and the Theological Christ by the Unitarian scholar and lecturer in Comparative Religion at the University of Oxford, J. Estlin Carpenter (1844-1927).

It met first of all in the rooms of F. J. M. Stratton (1881-1960) on Downing Street. Stratton was the Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge from 1928 to 1947. In 1923, the present church hall was built and was in use as the church until the construction of the present building in 1927. Both the hall and the church were designed by Ronald Potter Jones FRIBA (1876-1965) and his architectural ideas concerning church building can be found in his book Nonconformist Church Architecture (Lindsey Press, London, 1914). An important Cambridge figure in the congregation during the 1960s and 70s was Lord McNair of Gleniffer F.B.A. (1885-1975) who became Professor of Law at Cambridge and who was also Vice-Chancellor of Liverpool University, President of the International Court of Justice and also President of this congregation.

Memorably, in 1931, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948) visited the church to speak to the Indian Community Association in the hall. Click HERE to read the newspaper accounts.

Early Unitarians in Cambridge

Influential people in Cambridge who adopted a Unitarian viewpoint include:

John Milton (1608-1674): a member of Christ’s College was an English poet and civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under its Council of State and later under Oliver Cromwell and an advocate of religious toleration.

Sir Isaac Newton, F.R.S. (1642-1727): whose unorthodox religious views were known to his friends and are clearly stated in his posthumously published religious writings.

William Whiston (1667-1752): who succeeded Isaac Newton as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics.

Theophilus Lindsey (1723-1808): a Fellow of St. John’s and later Vicar of Catterick who, in 1774, resigned his living to become minister of the first openly avowed Unitarian congregation in England at Essex Street in London.

William Frend (1757-1841): a mathematician and Fellow of Jesus who resigned his living as Vicar of Madingley in 1787 when he became a Unitarian.

Richard Porson (1759-1808): a Fellow of Trinity who showed that the verse 1 John 5:7 concerning the three heavenly witnesses (which was considered to be a text proving the doctrine of the Trinity) was a very late addition to the text.

Where does the name “Unitarian” come from?

Our roots lie in the Radical Reformation of 16th-century Poland and Hungary. At that time, Protestant Christians claimed the right to read the Bible in their own languages and to interpret it for themselves. Some who did so found that it spoke of one God, without qualification. This did not square with the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which says that God consists of three “persons”. Because our forebears believed God to be a “unity” rather than a “trinity” they became known as “Unitarians”.

Does “Unitarian” have the same meaning today?

Unitarians are less likely to argue about such strictly theological issues today. We now place much more stress on the importance of freedom of thought and liberty of conscience in matters of faith. However, in a variety of different ways, we continue to affirm the basic insight expressed by one of our forebears, George de Benneville (1703–1793) who said:

The inner spirit makes us feel that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things. Let us, therefore, preach the universal and everlasting gospel of boundless, universal love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular.

For the most part that which unites, which holds everything together in its astonishing diversity, is what many Unitarians mean today if and when they chose to speak of God.

Are Unitarians Christians?

As to whether any Unitarian, or anyone else, is a Christian is really for that person to decide.

From the earliest days of the Church there have been many different ideas about what being a Christian means. Much suffering has been caused by the resultant disputes, persecutions and wars. This sad record has led some of us to regard the term “Christian” with disfavour. For them it is too hung about with unacceptable baggage to be worth retaining.

Also, there are also those who simply do not base their belief system on the Christian tradition. Some of these define their position as religious humanist. Others favour a broader theism, an earth– or nature-centred spirituality or a faith that draws principally on religions other than Christianity.

Given this, here we favour a simple and inclusive definition of the word Christian. Thus, for us, a Christian is simply any person who seeks to live in accord with the life and teachings of the human Jesus and who identifies with what is best in the Christian tradition.

In this sense, many Unitarians are Christians. And we also recognise as such all who share the same spirit, whatever their position on the Christian theological spectrum and whether theist or atheist.

(The previous three questions are adapted from Cliff Reed’s book Unitarian? What’s That?, which you can read at this link.)