Antitrinitarian Tendencies at Zürich and Basel, 15531572


    Geneva was not the only Swiss city where there were Italian refugees, or where there were seeds of heresy trying to sprout.  Zürich, the home of Zwingli, who had founded the Reformation in Switzerland, had long been a favorite refuge for Italian Protestants, when in 1555 their number was suddenly increased by a whole congregation at once.  There had been a flourishing young Protestant church at Locarno in Italian Switzerland; and when the Catholic government there at length required them either to give up their faith or to leave the city, they unhesitatingly decided to do the latter.  A few of them stopped in the Grisons, where they were made welcome; but the most of them, some six or eight score, went at once to Zürich, where they were hospitably received, were granted a church of their own for Italian worship, and were aided from public funds.  Now it happened that just as they were looking for a minister Ochino was nearby at Basel, and the Locarno church thought themselves most happy when he accepted their unanimous call.

    We last took leave of Ochino at Geneva in 1545.  Since then he had had a varied and interesting life.  From Geneva he had gone to Augsburg where for two years he preached to an Italian congregation.  When it became unsafe under a Catholic government for him longer to stay there, he went to England, at the urgent invitation of Archbishop Cranmer, and for nearly six years preached to an Italian congregation in London.  All this time he was on the one hand publishing volumes of sermons to be circulated in his dear Italy, where he might no longer preach in person, and was on the other hand becoming acquainted with distinguished Protestants, among them Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth, to whom he dedicated one of his books.  But the accession of the Catholic Queen Mary made it necessary for him to leave England, and he returned to Switzerland, arriving at Geneva, so the tradition runs, on the very day after the execution of Servetus.  After a brief visit to Chiavenna, and about a year’s residence at Basel, he was called to Zürich, as said above.

    Ochino was now sixty-eight years old, and deserved a life of quiet retirement; but he accepted his call to new labors without hesitation.  For eight years he discharged his office faithfully and with energy, and was held in universal esteem. Although it is possible to imagine in some of his writings before now a faint tinge of heresy, his orthodoxy had never been called in question by Protestants.  But in 1563 he published two volumes of Dialogues, which soon brought him into trouble, for one of them was interpreted as arguing in favor of polygamy.  This was then a tender subject in the Protestant world, for one of the Protestant princes, Philip of Hesse, had some years previously contracted a polygamous marriage, and had been defended by Luther for it; whereupon Catholics had taken advantage of the situation by calling attention to the demoralizing effects of the Protestant religion.

    The Protestant government of Zürich did not propose to bear the weight of another such scandal.  Without having granted him even a trial, the magistrates condemned Ochino to banishment within three weeks.  At the edge of winter, and at the age of seventy-six, with his four motherless children, he was obliged to set forth.  Refused residence at Basel and also at Mühlhausen, he was permitted to stay the winter out at Nuremberg, though forbidden to remain there longer.  In May he arrived in Poland, where he already had numerous friends and correspondents.  Here at least he had hoped to be unmolested, and he commenced preaching to an Italian congregation in the capital, at Krakow.  But the Catholics had never forgiven their most distinguished preacher for leaving the Church.  Within three months they secured from a compliant government a decree that all foreign preachers who were spreading the Protestant religion should leave the country.  The decree was aimed especially at Ochino — in fact, he is said to have been the only one to whom it was applied at the time.  Nobles interceded for him in vain.  Before he could leave he was stricken down with the plague.  Three of his four children died of it.  With his one remaining daughter he was finally able late in the year to travel.  One refuge still remained when all others had failed.  It was among the Anabaptists of Moravia. Thither he turned his faltering steps, and having reached them he died within three weeks at Slavkov (Austerlitz), in his seventy-eighth year.

    In the winter after he was driven from Zürich, Ochino prepared an apology to the ministers of that city, in which he defended himself and attacked them.   They replied with A Sponge to Wipe out the Aspersions Cast by Ochino, in which they ransacked his writings for materials to justify their treatment of him; and it was not until now that it occurred to them to charge him with unsoundness as to the Trinity.  Two of his Dialogues had been on that subject; and in those, although he appeared to be defending the doctrine, the arguments which he put into the mouth of the attack were so much stronger than those that he put into the mouth of the defense, that there certainly was some color in the charge that he really meant by this means to undermine a doctrine in which he no longer much believed.  He was unsound also on the doctrine of the atonement.  At all events, he had expressed strong disapproval of the execution of Servetus; at Zürich he had been intimate with Lælius Socinus, whose part in the movement we have next to notice; and we find him in Poland associating with the party which was rapidly developing antitrinitarian views there, and taking part in one of their synods; while it was with the antitrinitarian Paruta1 that he found his last refuge in Moravia.  For these reasons his name seems to belong in the history of this movement, in which his writings had important influence.

    Lælius Socinus (Lelio Sozini) is one whose name has shone by reflected light from his far more famous nephew Faustus, of whom we shall hear much in connection with the Unitarian movement in Poland.  He was born at Siena in 1525, of a family of very distinguished jurists, and connected by family ties with one of the Popes.   He was educated in law at Padua and Bologna, and early went over to the Reformation.  He was for a time at Venice, though no good evidence is extant that, as is sometimes alleged, he belonged to the antitrinitarian movement there.  In 1547 he came to Chiavenna and met Renato, who apparently had a profound influence on the development of the young man’s thought.  He next spent some time in travel in the Protestant lands of northern Europe — Switzerland, France, England, Holland, and Germany.  Everywhere his family name and his attractive manner and character won him friends among the distinguished, and he enjoyed the friendship and received the praise of Calvin, Melanchthon, and other leading reformers.  He was apparently trying to reorganize his religious thought, and wherever he went was full of questions about points of doctrine; but although these at times aroused misgivings as to whether he was not becoming tinged with heresy, he never wholly lost the confidence of even Calvin.

    In 1549, after further travels to Poland, Moravia, and Italy, he returned to Switzerland and finally settled down at Zürich as the safest place for a man of inquiring mind; for during his absence in Italy Servetus had been put to death at Geneva, and of this Socinus so strongly disapproved that he was suspected of being the author of the bitter attack which was soon afterwards made against Calvin.2  After a time complaints began to reach Zürich that Socinus was heretical as to the Trinity, and he was therefore called to account.  Yet he had been regarded as orthodox enough to be chosen one of the elders of the Italian church when it arrived from Locarno, and had been one of the two chosen to take to Basel its invitation to Ochino, whom he had previously met in England; and he now gave a satisfactory explanation of his views, and wrote out a confession of his faith which was accepted.  Henceforth, however, he became more and more reserved in expressing his views, save to trusted Italian friends; and although his doubts as to the received creeds are likely to have strengthened rather than grown weaker, yet he gave no open ground for complaint.  When in 1562 he died at the early age of thirty-seven, his papers fell to his nephew, Faustus, and the latter, adopting and expanding the ideas he had found in these, became some twenty years later the leader of the Unitarians in Poland, and the author of their system of doctrine.  It is thus that Lælius Socinus has sometimes been called “the patriarch of Socinianism,” though so far as we can now discover his influence upon it has been greatly overestimated.

    Another member of the Zürich church, however, who was less guarded in expressing his views than Socinus and Ochino had been, was Antonio Maria Besozzo, a Milanese gentleman and teacher who had joined himself to the exiles from Locarno, and had been a close friend of Socinus.  Some heresy hunters lit upon some things he had said in conversation, magnified them, and laid the matter before the Council.  He was judged guilty of the heresies of Servetus and Ochino, and, being permanently banished from the place, together with his wife he withdrew to Basel in 1565.  This was the end of Antitrinitarianism at Zürich.

    At Basel, the other Swiss town of which we have to speak, there was no separate Italian church, though a notable company of Italians of liberal mind found a home in the church of the Protestants.  Basel was the chief home of scholarship in Switzerland, and the best scholars of Europe resorted thither; interested, after the manner of scholars, not so much in particular doctrines as in general liberty of thought and conscience.  Erasmus had left his liberalizing spirit behind him here, and the press was uncommonly free.  Here Servetus had at first found sympathy; Ochino had lived here; Faustus Socinus had here spent four important years of his life; David Joris had found Basel the most tolerant place to which to flee from persecution,3 and from here had written his noteworthy letter urging that Servetus’s life be spared.4  It was also here that Chatillon in the year after Servetus’s death wrote his stinging inquiry as to whether heretics were to be put to death;5 and here that Mino Celso6 in 1577 raised another powerful voice against persecution.  The principle of perfect freedom of belief in religion is an even more important mark of Unitarianism than is any particular doctrine; Basel therefore deserves to be remembered in this history because it was at this period the place above all others where religious toleration was most strongly advocated.

    Besides those named above, whose influence (much to Calvin’s disgust) made Basel more hospitable to freedom of religious thought than were the other Swiss cities, one other person may have special mention.  Celio Secondo Curione was born of noble family in Piedmont in 1503, the youngest of a family of twenty-four children, and was early left an orphan.  He was educated at the University of Turin, and as one of the disciples of Valdez became attached to the doctrines of the Reformation.  After teaching for some time at the universities of Pavia and Lucca he fell under the eye of the Inquisition in 1512 and fled the country, spending some time in the Grisons with Renato on his way to Switzerland, where he soon became Rector of the University of Lausanne.  Later on as Professor of Eloquence at Basel he attracted large numbers of students, and until his death in 1569 was admired as one of the most learned of the Italian refugees.  As early as 1549 he published a work on Christian doctrine in which he significantly avoided reference to the doctrine of the Trinity; and in the following year he attended the Anabaptist Council at Venice.  In another work he maintained the comfortable doctrine that the great majority of men will be saved.  And since he was friendly with Cellarius, Biandrata, Gribaldo, Ochino, Socinus, Stancaro, Chatillon, and other Antitrinitarians, and since he opposed the burning of Servetus and was regarded by Calvin as a Servetian, it is fair to presume him an Antitrinitarian at heart, even if not an outspoken one.

    We have reached the end of our survey of the first scattered beginnings of Unitarianism in Europe.  We have seen that during the first half-century after Luther, in all the countries in Western Europe where the Reformation took root (save England, of which we shall speak separately in later chapters), there were independent spirits who were not satisfied to stop where the leading reformers had stopped in their reform of the Church, but who wished to carry it further and thoroughly to reform the doctrines of Christianity, so that they might be based only on the teachings of the Bible and might not give offense to reason.  These were the earliest Unitarians in Europe; or rather, they were the first to take those steps away from the orthodox doctrines of Christianity about God, Christ, the atonement, and related doctrines, which led at length to modern Unitarianism.  Why did not their movement succeed better? The answer is plain to see.  None of them was long permitted to proclaim his views unmolested.  We have seen that in every instance thus far the penalty of denying the doctrine of the Trinity and of the Deity of Christ was bitter persecution — banishment, imprisonment, even death itself. One can hardly refrain from applying to these the words of the New Testament written of heroes of faith of an earlier time,7 “who through faith quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were tortured, not accepting their deliverance; while others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: they were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented, of whom the world was not worthy.”  None of these was permitted to live a peaceful life, and not a few suffered tragic deaths.  The conscience and mind of man were not yet free in Protestant Europe, any more than in Catholic.  The laws of the State were used to repress freedom of thought and free speech within the Church.  Those that escaped death wandered over the face of Europe, happy if they might at last find somewhere a quiet corner to die in.  Is it any wonder that Unitarianism did not spread faster? Indeed Unitarian views of Christianity would have come to an end almost in the generation in which they arose, had there not been in eastern Europe two remote countries where broader religious toleration prevailed, and where Unitarians might under the law in some measure enjoy equal rights with other Protestants. For the further development of our subject, promoted by some of those whom we have seen driven out of Italy and Switzerland, we have next, therefore, to turn to Poland and Transylvania.


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