Antitrinitarianism in the Grisons, 15421579


    The antitrinitarian movement which in the last chapter we followed among the Anabaptists of northern Italy was, as was noted, with few exceptions a movement among the poor and humble.  Its main concern was with practical reforms of the Christian religion, considered as a means of bringing men nearer to God.  We have now to turn to a quite different sort of movement, which took its rise among some of the most highly cultivated minds in Italy, and was mainly concerned with the reform of the Christian doctrines.  It was the latter of these two antitrinitarian tendencies that was destined in the next generation to take root among the liberal Protestants of Poland, and to determine the prevailing character of the Unitarian movement for nearly three centuries.

    The spirit of free inquiry which began with Italian Humanism in the generation before the Reformation had no little influence on some of the finest spirits in the Catholic Church, able scholars, eloquent preachers, and noble ladies; and through these it soon began widely to affect the educated middle classes, especially in the cities.  This movement, which was much influenced by the writings of the German reformers, aimed at reform from within the Church, and sought to lead men to cultivate a simple, devout form of Christianity, which greatly valued religion as a personal experience, but laid little emphasis upon creeds or doctrines.  This first step toward a more liberal form of faith within the bosom of the Catholic Church can best be followed by our now speaking of several persons active in this movement, who were of importance in the religious history of the time.

    Juan de Valdez was a Spanish nobleman, born about 1500, who had to flee from the Spanish Inquisition and in 1530 came to Italy to live.  He was a gentleman of rare accomplishments and great social charm, and his home at Naples became the resort of noble ladies and gentlemen, distinguished scholars, and famous preachers of the religious orders.  He had accepted the views of Luther, and in meetings which he used to hold at his house at Naples on Sundays for religious conversation he introduced them to his guests. Thus, and through books of his which are still prized as devotional classics, he exerted a wide influence in favor of spiritual and undogmatic religion.  Fortunately for himself he died, universally lamented, in 1541, the year before the founding of the Italian Inquisition, which, had he lived much longer, would undoubtedly have called him to  account. For while it is not correct to call him an Antitrinitarian, as has often been done, yet he carefully avoids the doctrine of the Trinity in his writings; and the tendency of his influence may be judged from the fact that several of those who fell under it became decidedly heretical on this point, as we shall see in this and later chapters.

    Even more famous than Valdez, and of wider influence, was Bernardino Ochino.  He was born at Siena in 1487, was of humble parentage and limited education, though of great natural talents, and was destined to be esteemed incomparably the best preacher in Italy.   Seeking to save his soul by a more holy life, he entered the order of St. Francis in young manhood, and after twenty years becoming dissatisfied with the laxity of this he joined the yet stricter order of Capuchin Friars, in which he received the singular honor of being twice chosen Vicar General.  The preaching of the Catholic Church was at that time done exclusively by the friars; and Ochino, now become celebrated for his eloquent preaching, drew immense crowds to hear his Lenten sermons at Venice and Naples, and was everywhere received with the greatest distinction, while at the same time revered almost as a saint for his self-denying and holy life.  While thus preaching at Naples he was drawn within the circle of Valdez’s influence, and became deeply interested in the reformation of the Church, and in a religion which should lay much stress upon a devout and holy life, but little upon the doctrines of the Creeds.  He was in a fair way, through his great influence over the people, to become the Luther of Italy, when the Inquisition resented his public criticism of its intolerant spirit, and summoned him to appear before it in Rome.  Having received an intimation that his death was already determined upon, he fled from Italy in 1542 by way of the Grisons, and joined the Protestants beyond the Alps. In a later chapter we shall follow his career there, where late in life he was suspected of having become an Antitrinitarian.  Meanwhile he left behind him in Italy an influence on many who soon had to flee like himself, of whom several are counted among the early Antitrinitarians.

    A more tragic fate befell Aonio Paleario, who was born about 1500, embraced the scholar’s life, and became a professor at several of the Italian universities.  He too became greatly interested in the reform of religion in much the same way as Valdez and Ochino, and though several times threatened with prosecution for heresy, he was defended by such powerful friends that he escaped.  At length, however, the Inquisition laid its relentless hands upon him, and after three years’ imprisonment at an advanced old age, he was hanged, and his body burned, in 1570.

    The cases of these three distinguished Italian Catholics who wished to reform the religion of their Church will serve to illustrate how in Italy the ground was being mellowed to receive the seeds of more radical thought.  For if the first article of the Creeds could be passed over by these leaders as not vitally important to Christianity, the next step would be yet more easy: to reject it outright as not scriptural, or not reasonable, and hence as not true.  This next step was soon taken, as we shall see, though not in Italy.  For beginning with 1542 the Inquisition became ever more active in scenting out Protestant heresy and persecuting heretics.  Whenever one of any importance was discovered, and was unwilling to renounce his faith, he had to flee the country in haste, as Ochino had done, lest he perish as Paleario did.  So that during the next generation large numbers of Italian refugees emigrated to Switzerland or beyond, where they might both preserve their lives and keep their religious faith.

    The nearest and most convenient place of refuge, to which most of them first fled, was the Grisons, which lay safely beyond the reach of the Inquisition, yet partly on the Italian side of the Alps, with the climate which Italians loved, and a language which they could understand.  The Grisons at the time of the Reformation were a loose confederation, in the extreme southeast of Switzerland, of three leagues which had asserted their independence of other powers and in 1471 had joined together in a highly democratic republic, and had early in the sixteenth century come to include adjoining districts in Italy, to which in our time they again belong.  It is a country of varied and beautiful scenery lying both north and south of the Alps, with narrow and secluded Alpine valleys and lofty snow peaks; and its valleys, passes, and towns are well known to travelers.

    Numerous heretics in these remote valleys are said to have escaped the vigilance of the Church all through the Middle Ages; and the Reformation spread so rapidly here that in 1526 the Diet of Ilanz decreed equal religious freedom to Protestants and Catholics, and recognized the Scriptures as the only authority in religion, though at the same time it outlawed the Anabaptists, and ordained that heretics should be punished by banishment.  The Grisons were thus at this time more advanced in religious toleration than any other country in Christian Europe.

    Anabaptists expelled from Zürich had come here almost as soon as the Reformation itself, and the teachings of Denck spread with the rest, soon followed by those of Servetus; but the most active influences came from the Italian refugees.  By 1550 more than two hundred of them, and by 1559 more than eight hundred, had passed this way, the number steadily rising as the Inquisition grew more severe.  Their preachers, most of them formerly preachers of the religious orders who had been influenced by the teachings of Luther, were eagerly welcomed for the aid they could give in spreading the Reformation among the Italian population; and in an atmosphere of comparative freedom their religious thought developed so rapidly, that it was not long before some of them came quite to disbelieve doctrines which hitherto they had only ignored.

    The first of these Italians to attract attention by his unorthodox teaching in the Grisons was an ex-monk, Francesco of Calabria, who had been one of the followers of Valdez, and who maintained that he was a disciple of Ochino.  He was pastor of a church in the Lower Engadine where, along with certain Anabaptist doctrines and the denial of eternal punishment, he seemed to teach that Christ was inferior to God.  The orthodox therefore complained of him, and although he was strongly supported by his own parish, he was convicted of heresy and banished from the country in 1544.  Another ex-monk and disciple of Ochino, Girolamo Marliano, pastor of the neighboring church of Lavin, besides holding Anabaptist views also taught that the doctrine of the Trinity, as commonly held, is contradictory and absurd.  He was therefore dismissed by his church, and later went to Basel.

    A bolder step was taken by a mysterious traveling preacher who is known to us only by the name of Tiziano, and of whose origin and fate no memory survives.  He had been in some cardinal’s court at Rome, had accepted the teachings of Luther, and had later become an Anabaptist.  It was he that converted and re-baptized the priest Manelfi at Florence in 1548 or 1549, after which they together visited the brethren at Vicenza; and at the Anabaptist Council at Venice in 1550 he appeared as a delegate from some congregation in the Grisons, whither he had evidently had to flee from Italy.  Besides his entertaining the usual Anabaptist views, his especial offense was that he considered Christ only an ordinary man, filled with the divine Spirit, but not miraculously born.  These views he preached at many places in the Grisons, winning numerous followers.  But the orthodox at length became so enraged against him that he was in imminent danger of being put to death, had not milder counsels prevailed.  He was arrested, and after long refusal was finally brought by threats of death to sign a statement which had been prepared for him, explicitly renouncing his errors.  His influence over his followers having thus been destroyed, he was flogged through the streets, and forever banished from the country in 1554.

    But the widest and deepest influence is generally ascribed to one Camillo.  He was a Sicilian scholar, who had been with Valdez at Naples; and after embracing the doctrines of the Reformation he assumed the name by which he is best known, Renato, by which he signified his feeling that he had been “born again.” A man of talents and fine education, he had a singular power of deeply influencing those whom he attracted to him. He was by nature serious, reserved, and shy; and his opponents regarded him as crafty and insidious in spreading his views.  To escape the danger that threatened all Protestants, he fled from Italy in 1542 and came to the Valtellina, where he supported himself as tutor to the sons of prominent families.  But although he was a teacher by occupation, his deepest interest was in questions of theology, which he seems to have taken every opportunity to discuss with his pupils and trusted friends.

    Renato had imbibed Anabaptist views, and was one of the earliest Italian Anabaptists to exert much influence; he had also read Servetus.  It may well have been he that converted Tiziano.  Quite independently of the Creeds he had developed a simple system of belief which shows that he was much of a mystic.  But though he was not orthodox as to the Atonement, and held that Christ inherited a sinful nature so that he at least could have sinned, yet he never let it be known, unless perhaps to his intimate friends, whether he believed in the doctrine of the Trinity or not.  It is very noteworthy, however, that several of the most important of those that later spread antitrinitarian views north of the Alps had been in Renato’s circle in the Grisons; and his system of belief in several respects so closely resembles that afterwards taught by Socinians (Unitarians) in Poland, that it is hard not to trace these various results to his quiet influence as their source.

    Renato left the Valtellina in 1545 for Chiavenna, the center of the Reformation in the Italian Grisons, where he soon acquired much influence, and where refugees fleeing into Switzerland were likely, if they remained long, to meet him and learn his views.  Here he fell into a long and bitter controversy upon the Lord’s Supper (a subject very hotly debated among the early reformers), with the pastor of the Chiavenna church, in which he had won a large number of sympathizers.  The end of the matter was that, having refused to refrain from spreading his views, he was excommunicated in 1550, and returned to the Valtellina.  From now on we lose track of him, save that four years later he sent from here to Calvin an eloquent Latin poem of protest at the burning of Servetus, and in favor of religious toleration, and that he was yet living, though blind, until after 1560.  He still kept up relations with his friends through correspondence, and his influence long persisted.

    Among those to take Renato’s part and receive his influence was Francesco Stancaro, formerly a monk, and very famous as a Hebrew scholar.  After turning Protestant he fled to the Grisons, whence he soon went on to Switzerland.  Through his unorthodox teaching as to the Atonement he later did much, as we shall see, to prepare the way for Unitarianism in Poland and Transylvania.

    The narrow mountain valleys of the Grisons were no place for men whose life had been spent in the society of large towns and the world of scholars.  Most of the leaders therefore soon went on to the stirring centers of Geneva, Zürich, Basel, or Strassburg, where we shall hear more of some of them in connection with our history.  Alone of those whom we have named, Renato remained behind; and even after we cease to hear of him directly the leaven of his teaching continued to work.  But in 1570 the Diet voted to banish all Anabaptists and Arians; and when two notorious Antitrinitarians from Geneva returned in 1579 for a visit to the Grisons, they were ordered to leave the country.

    Thus the antitrinitarian movement disappeared also from the Grisons, although it is most interesting to discover not only that nine of the old Protestant churches of that district still exist, with a numerous membership, but that more than half their pastors are decidedly liberal, preaching a Christianity which no longer insists upon creeds or believes in miracles.  The teachings that were nourished there in the time of which we have spoken, however, were not destroyed by the persecution they received, but simply transplanted beyond the Alps.  For it was as though the Grisons had been a hotbed for heresy, in which the seed thoughts planted in the minds of the Italian refugees might develop, protected from the harsh winds of persecution, until they were strong enough to be transplanted into the more vigorous atmosphere of northern Europe, where they were later to bear fruit.  Under this figure, the tending and cultivating of the young plants until they were well rooted was largely the quiet work of Camillo Renato.  Meantime the stage had been setting for another and more dramatic scene at Geneva, and we must therefore return to follow the later history and the tragic fate of Servetus.


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Text taken from a 1925 original copy of Earl Morse Wilbur's Our Unitarian Heritage.
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