Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington, KY

The Flaming Chalice

At the beginning of their services, many Unitarian Universalist congregations light a flame inside a chalice, symbolizing the spirit of community captured in a single vessel.

The flaming chalice, now the symbol of the UU tradition, originated in 1941 as the emblem of the Unitarian Service Committee (now the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee). The Service Committee, newly founded in Boston, had been organized to assist Eastern Europeans who needed to escape Nazi persecution. In addition to the Jews who were endangered by Hitler’s policies, the region had many Unitarian congregations who were also in harm’s way. The USC was headquartered in Lisbon, Portugal, and headed by the Reverend Charles Joy.

Joy soon met Austrian artist Hans Deutsch, who had fled to Portugal after his homeland had been invaded by Germany. Deutsch was impressed by Joy’s dogged secret network of agents and their rescue work. The USC, however, was so new in this underworld of espionage that it was not easy for its operatives to establish the trust necessary to bring refugees to freedom across the dangerous borders of land and language. Joy asked Deutsch to create an emblem to serve as a symbol for the USC’s documents “to make them look official. . .When a document may keep a man out of jail, give him standing with governments and police, it's important that it look important.”

Deutsch created a symbol that recalled for Joy “the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice.” The flaming chalice became the badge and seal of the USC’s agents and eventually was adopted as the logo for the Unitarian Universalist Association. From this beginning in secret rooms, along the escape routes of World War II, the flaming chalice has become our symbol of service and community and compassion.

(from The Flaming Chalice by Don Hotchkiss)