The Beginnings of Antitrinitarianism in Poland, down to 1565


    Thus far our history has been a story of oft-repeated failure and frequent tragedy. Wherever thinkers or preachers arose, alike in Catholic lands and in Protestant, and whether in Italy and France, or in Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, who were independent enough and daring enough to appeal to the Scriptures, or to the early Fathers of the Christian Church, or to reason, against the orthodox doctrines about God and Christ, there they were inevitably called to account by both Church and State, and forced either to recant and relapse into silence, or else to suffer banishment, imprisonment, or martyrdom.  The movement was thus effectually suppressed throughout all western Europe.  From all this depressing story we can now turn to a happier one, in spite of its still being often darkened by the shadows of persecution and death, in two countries of eastern Europe, where laws were more tolerant, and the State was less subservient to the will of the Church.

   The first of these countries was Poland.  Poland was, in the age of the Reformation, a great and powerful monarchy, a little larger than the state of Texas, and one of the most free and enlightened nations of Europe.  Its capital, Krakow, boasted a celebrated university, the second oldest in all Europe, which had given the world Copernicus and other famous scholars; while its metropolis (and later capital), Warsaw, was called “the Paris of the East.” The Poles were a people of uncertain origin, a part of that great Slavic stock which has for centuries occupied the east and southeast of Europe.  By the ninth century the wandering tribes had become a nation with a hereditary monarchy; toward the end of the fourteenth century the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was united to Poland under the crown of the famous Jagiello dynasty; and when this dynasty became extinct in 1572, the monarchy became elective, whence its people have often loved to call it a republic.  The real power of government was henceforth in the bands of the nobility, a class comprising about a tenth of the population, and including all men who owned land or whose ancestors had owned it.  The nobles were supposed to have equal political rights, and only they might vote.  The magnates, or more powerful nobles, owned vast tracts of country, including cities and villages, and held nearly absolute sway over all upon their estates. Laws were made by their delegates meeting in Diets.  The nobles were proverbially quarrelsome and jealous of one another; so that neighboring nations, taking advantage of the weakness resulting from these internal discords, eventually fell upon Poland and carved it to pieces in three successive divisions (1772, 1793, and 1795), distributing it all among Russia, Prussia, and Austria.  Thus for a century and a quarter Poland was extinct, save in the hearts of its children, until as a result of the World War it has again been re-established among the nations.

    Poland had accepted Christianity in the tenth century, and Lithuania had done so upon its union with Poland; but the nobles were little inclined to allow foreign interference with their affairs, and for centuries after the Catholic Church had gained an almost absolute sway in western Europe, its hold in Poland was but feeble.  Even before Luther the doctrines of the Waldenses and of Hus had largely undermined its influence; and although laws against heresy had indeed been passed, they were but little enforced, so that the Reformation early and easily took root here.  The Protestant faith was introduced in several different forms, by the Lutheran Church, the Reformed Church (Calvinists), the Bohemian Brethren (Hussites), and the Anabaptists — the latter without separate organization, but as a sort of leaven, especially among the Reformed.  Of all these the Reformed Church was the most influential, chiefly among the nobility, and with it the Bohemian Brethren soon formed a union.  With the active sympathy of many of the nobles, the Reformation spread rapidly and widely.  Synods of the Catholic Church passed ordinances against Protestantism, but they could not be enforced.  By the middle of the sixteenth century the power of Catholicism bad been broken, and at length over two thousand Catholic churches became Protestant, and an overwhelming majority of both houses of the national Diet were of the reformed faith.  King Sigismund Augustus II (1548 – 1572), though Catholic, was tolerant, and refused to persecute Dissidents (as all non-Catholics came to be called), saying that he wished to be king of both sheep and goats; and immediately after his death the Diet passed in 1573 a law guaranteeing equal protection and rights to all citizens without regard to differences of religious faith, and this law later kings, when they received the crown, were repeatedly required to promise to maintain.  When shortly afterwards the candidate for the throne, being an intense Catholic, demurred about taking oath to maintain this law, he was sternly told, Si non jurabis non regnabis — If you do not swear, you shall not be king; and he had to submit.

    The first recorded instance of Antitrinitarianism in Poland, however, is found not in Protestant but in Catholic circles, and the account of it has come to us in a curious story.  There was at Krakow in 1546 a little group of liberal Catholic scholars who used to meet together privately to discuss the Protestant doctrines then so rife.  The leader of the number was Francesco Lismanino, head of the Franciscan Order in Poland, and confessor to Queen Bona, who being Italian, had obtained some of Ochino’s sermons and given them to him to read.  At one of their meetings there appeared a Dutchman who passed under the name of Spiritus, and who, in turning over a book of prayers in the library of his host, and finding some of them addressed to each of the three persons of the Trinity, inquired whether, then, they had three Gods.  The subject was soon broken off, but not until it had made a deep impression on those present, of whom several later became Antitrinitarians.  Other influences also worked in the same direction.  Servetus’s little books on the Trinity had already been much read in Poland; Lælius Socinus1 had visited Lismanino at Krakow in 1549; Stancaro,2 who had come to the University there as Professor of Hebrew, created much stir a little later by teaching that Christ was our mediator only through his human nature, and by thus ignoring his divinity paved the way for doubt of the Trinity, and opened a discussion which agitated the new reformers for five or six years; and undoubtedly, since Poland enjoyed closest relations with Italian culture, other Italian heretics secretly came thither or spread their views through their writings.  Thus the soil was prepared for the development we are to follow.

    Upon the Lutheran Church in Poland, Antitrinitarianism never made any impression, but in the Reformed Church in Little Poland and Lithuania it made such rapid headway that for a time it seemed likely to win the day.  Young nobles and ministers attending the universities of Germany, Switzerland, or Italy learned of the teachings of Servetus and brought them home for discussion.  The first public attack on the doctrine of the Trinity was made by a young minister named Peter of Goniondz (Gonesius).  He had been sent abroad to prepare himself for the priesthood, but while studying not only had become Protestant, but in Switzerland had discovered the teachings of Servetus, and for advocating them at Wittenberg he had been forced by Melanchthon to leave town.  Returning to Poland in 1555 be became a minister in the Reformed Church, and at the synod of Secemin early the following year he made an extended address against the doctrine of the Trinity, accepting only the Apostles’ Creed and denying the Nicene and the Athanasian, and offered his views for the judgment of the synod.  The members present were so much impressed by what Gonesius had said that for a report upon his views they sent him to Melanchthon at Wittenberg, who strove in vain to convince him of his error.

    The new views made rapid progress during the next three years, and when the subject was again discussed at a synod at Pinczow late in 1558, they were found to have won many converts among both the clergy and the nobles.  Nevertheless Gonesius was condemned by a majority of the synod, and having therefore to leave the province of Little Poland he went to Lithuania, where now grown bolder in his convictions, he carried his views yet further at a synod at Brest (Brest Litovsk) in 1560, and added to them also some Anabaptist objections against infant baptism, and the lawfulness of bearing arms.  Here too the teachings of Stancaro and Servetus had prepared the way.  The synod, fearing a schism, imposed silence on him, on pain of excommunication; but he had already won to his views numerous distinguished nobles, and with their support went on his way as before.

   By far the most important of these was Jan Kiszka, who when a student at Basel had come under the liberalizing influence of Châtillon and Curione, and was thus well prepared for the new views he now heard.  He was the second most powerful magnate in all Lithuania, was owner of vast territories, including four hundred villages and seventy cities, and had unbounded influence.  He gave his powerful support to Gonesius, and made him minister of the church in his town of Wengrow, which may thus be set down as the first antitrinitarian church in Poland; and he also set up a printing press to further the cause of his faith.  Eventually he gave to the Antitrinitarians churches under his control in Lithuania or Podlachia, or built them new ones, to the number of about twenty in all.3

    It was at Pinczow, however, the chief educational center of the Reformed Church thus far, that the antitrinitarian movement had the most interesting development at this period; and here, by common consent, gathered so many of those that favored it, that before long they came to be known as Pinczovians.  The Reformed Church here had from the first been much influenced by Anabaptist tendencies, and was thus disposed to emphasize Scripture more than the creeds; and the long controversy carried on here with Stancaro over the doctrine mentioned above4 had tended to undermine faith in the Trinity.  Biandrata, who had already been in Poland a decade before as court physician to Queen Bona, but had in the meantime been in Italy and in Switzerland whence, as we have seen,5 he had to flee from Calvin in 1558, in that same year returned to Poland and came to Pinczow, where he found things going very much to his mind.  He heard the bold stand taken by Gonesius, and gave him his sympathy.

    Here too he found Lismanino, who had now for some time been Protestant, wavering as to the doctrine of the Trinity, and won him over to positive disbelief in it.  The minister of the Pinczow church and the rector of its school were also converted to the new views.  Biandrata, more advanced than the rest in the heresy, soon became virtually the leader of the movement; and by using the most cautious methods of promoting his views, and by taking care to use only the language of Scripture in expressing them, he rapidly won great influence among the churches of Little Poland, so that in 1560 he was chosen elder for the district of Krakow.  Calvin heard of this with the greatest dismay, and wrote letters to persons of influence in Poland, warning them against Biandrata as a most unscrupulous and dangerous heretic; but little heed was paid to his warnings.  To clear himself from any suspicion, Biandrata was, indeed, required to submit to the synod a statement of his faith; but he did so in phrases of such unimpeachable orthodoxy that all doubts were at once dispelled.

    Alciati and Gentile also soon arrived, fresh from their persecution by Calvin,6 and, unhindered by his warnings to the churches against them, they attended synods and took part in the discussions over doctrine.  Lælius Socinus paid a flying visit, though perhaps without influencing the course of events; and Ochino7 later came and for a few months added the eloquence of his voice.  The Pinczovians published two confessions of their faith in 1560 and 1561, were enthusiastic and aggressive, and steadily won adherents among both the ministers and the nobles and high officials.  The new views gained ground rapidly, and the orthodox took alarm.  Frequent synods were held, with the doctrine of the Trinity always up for debate; but as the appeal was always from the doctrine and language of the Creeds to the doctrine of the early Church and the language of Scripture, the orthodox inevitably had the worst of the argument.  Each synod showed new gains; and when at the synod of Pinczow in 1562 the liberals had the majority, and voted that ministers should abstain from speaking of the Trinity save in such terms as are used in the Scriptures, the day seemed won.  The next year they condemned the doctrine of the Trinity as Sabellian,8 and composed a new confession.

    The most effective preacher of the new views in the province of Little Poland was Gregory Paulus.  He had accepted the views of Gonesius when they were first expressed at the synod of 1556, but soon went beyond the Arianism of the latter and regarded Christ as simply human, while he also adopted various Anabaptist views as to baptism and the conduct of a Christian’s life.  He is said to have been the first in Poland to attack the doctrine of the Trinity from his pulpit at Krakow, where he won over some of the ministers and most of his own congregation, whose exemplary lives gained them many sympathizers; and backed by the support of a powerful patron he was made minister of a congregation where crowds came to hear him.  While he was preaching there one Trinity Sunday against the doctrine of the Trinity, the spire of Trinity church was struck by lightning.  The event made a great impression in all quarters; but while the orthodox declared it was an evidence of divine anger, his friends interpreted it as a sign of divine approval of his doctrine.

    Though the orthodox party in Little Poland were now in the minority, they were still determined not to yield.  Not long after the vote of the synod of Pinczow above referred to, one of their ministers, Stanislaw Sarnicki, jealous over Paulus’s advancement in the church, brought against him charges of being an Arian and a follower of Servetus.  Paulus defended himself successfully against one charge after another until at length, when it became evident that nothing could be accomplished against him through the existing synod, and Paulus’s patron had now died, Sarnicki secretly convened an opposition synod solely of his own party, to which Paulus and his friends were not invited.  It disowned the authority of the previous synod, condemned Paulus and his followers as Tritheists,9 removed him from office, and put Sarnicki in his place.  Sarnicki had yet others deprived of their pulpits; but Paulus found a new patron and still continued to preach.  All this was in 1563.  Further efforts were made to heal the schism, but to no purpose, for the orthodox would not join in them; so that when the next synod met at Mordy later the same year, they would take no part in it.  It must be remembered, however, that there was as yet no separately organized antitrinitarian church; for all that has been related was simply an effort to free the Reformed Church from the bondage of the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, and to restore the pure scriptural doctrines of early Christianity.

    Biandrata had followed Gonesius from Pinczow to Lithuania, where he had secured the powerful patronage of Prince Nicholas Radziwill, who angrily resented Calvin’s attempts to shake his confidence in his guest; and he gave further impulse to the rapidly growing movement in Lithuania.  Just at this juncture, however, when what the antitrinitarian movement most wanted was an able leader, Biandrata was invited, in 1563, to go to Transylvania as court physician to the ruling prince, John Sigismund. Doubtless apprehensive as to what Calvin might yet succeed in accomplishing against him, as well as allured by the attractions of a life at court, be accepted the invitation with alacrity.  In a later chapter we shall find him founding the Unitarian movement in Transylvania and for a time guiding its destinies, and thus playing a yet more important role there than he had played in Poland, where Paulus now became the leader of the movement.

    The heresy of these early Antitrinitarians in Poland was of the mildest sort.  They insisted on hardly more than that Christ, though he might still be considered God, should be regarded as at least in some slight sense inferior to the Father; and that in stating their faith Christians should abandon the technical terms of the Creeds, and return to the simple words of the Scripture and the teaching of the Ante-Nicene Church.  They accepted the Apostles’ Creed, and they were sometimes willing even to profess faith in a sort of Trinity — what they called a scriptural Trinity.  But, although this was at bottom all a purely speculative question about a fine point in theology — whether the Son were altogether equal with the Father or slightly inferior to him — the orthodox regarded the struggle with Antitrinitarianism as nothing less than a life-and-death matter for their religion, and left no stone unturned to overthrow so dangerous a heresy.  To this end they even joined with the Catholics in 1564 to secure a decree of banishment against Antitrinitarians; though, contrary to their expectation, the decree was found instead to apply to all foreign Protestants.  They appealed to the king, and it was not actually enforced except against Ochino10 and perhaps one or two more; but all Protestants were by this act caused to realize their common danger at the hands of the Catholics.

    One final attempt, therefore, was made to bring about a settlement of their differences.  With the sanction of the king it was arranged that while the national Diet was sitting at Piotrkow in 1565 a formal debate between the two parties should be held, in the presence of the great number of magnates and nobles, as well as of ministers who would be in attendance with their patrons, especially since many had not yet taken sides in the controversy.  The conditions of the debate were carefully drawn, disputants were appointed to speak for each side, distinguished nobles served as presiding officers and secretaries.  Arguments and answers to them were written out and read on both sides; the Pinczovians appealing only to the authority of Scripture, the orthodox to Scripture, the Fathers, and the Councils.  When the debate had lasted for fourteen days with no progress made toward agreement, the orthodox side suddenly broke it off without warning, and, meeting by themselves, voted to have nothing more to do with such obstinate and incorrigible heretics.  They reported their decision to the king, and henceforth refused all approaches for union.

    The breach thus made was past all mending, and the antitrinitarian party, being thus shut out from any relations with the orthodox, were forced to form their own separate organization, and all later efforts at reunion proved futile.  When a few years afterwards a federation of the several Protestant churches of Poland was formed at Sandomir (the so-called Consensus Sandomiriensis, 1570), its primary object was to unite the orthodox bodies on a common basis of faith against “the Tritheists, Ebionites,11 and Anabaptists,” whose spread had so much disturbed their peace; especial care was therefore taken to exclude these from the union, and action was repeatedly taken afterwards to make the exclusion yet more strict.  If it be said, however, that all this was a very long time ago, it is proper to remark that very recent religious history in America records the closest parallels to this action of the sixteenth century in Poland; and it sometimes seems as if the orthodox in England and America now were little less exclusive toward those who do not agree with their doctrines than they were in Poland three hundred and fifty years ago. 


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