The Organization and Growth of the Antitrinitarian Churches in Poland, 15651579


    As was seen at the end of the last chapter, the antitrinitarian party were in 1565 excluded from further connection with the orthodox party in the Reformed Church.  If they were now still to continue their existence and hold and extend their faith, instead of gradually dying out and being absorbed by other bodies, they had to organize an independent church among themselves; and this they now proceeded to do.  The new church was completely organized that same year, with its own synods, ministers, schools, and constitution.  It became officially known as the Minor Reformed Church of Poland, though its members preferred to call themselves simply Christians; while their opponents, desiring to fasten upon them the stigma of hated heresies, for the most part called them Arians or Anabaptists.  A synod was held at Wengrow at the end of the year, attended by forty-seven of the clergy from all parts of the kingdom, and by fourteen noblemen; and letters of sympathy were received from various distinguished ladies and other persons, as well as from churches in distant parts of the kingdom.  The first steps were also taken here for settling disputed questions of doctrine and practice; for it was of course but natural that having laid aside the old creeds, and looking only to Scripture for their authority, they should for a time come to different views from a book which after all represents so many different points of view.  And that the more, since they had as yet no leader who by his influence was able to direct the whole church and impress on it a common faith or policy.  For even before the church was fairly organized, the two who might best have held things together had removed.  Lismanino, having fallen into disfavor with the king, had gone to Prussia where, after a brief stay at the court of Duke Albert of Königsberg, he had died in 1563; while in the same year Biandrata, as we have seen, had gone to Transylvania; and no one in those troublous times had arisen to take their places.

    The Minor Church, in fact, seems at this time to have been most loosely organized.  Such synods as its members held had only local influence, and no strong authority, and there was no generally accepted standard of belief.  Almost the sole point on which they were united was the one which had caused their separation from the orthodox: as to the doctrine of the Trinity, that the Father was supreme over the Son.  As soon as ever they tried to state their views on other doctrines they fell out with one another.  On three other heads in particular there were wide differences and endless controversies among them: as to the right form of administering baptism and Lord’s Supper, as to their belief about Christ and the Holy Spirit, and as to their attitude toward the civil government and their practical conduct of life.  These differences had arisen in Poland even before Antitrinitarianism, and dated back to the very beginnings of the Reformation.

    The first of these questions to trouble the Minor Church seriously was the question of baptism.  To us this may seem a comparatively trivial matter, but to them it was of the most vital concern; for had not Jesus said, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned”?  To continue the Catholic practice of infant baptism, then, when it had not been commanded or even practiced in the New Testament, or to rely upon it as baptism at all, seemed to them, as it had to the earlier Anabaptists, to be risking their hope of eternal salvation.  Gonesius had therefore attacked infant baptism when he first appeared in Lithuania, and a minister named Czechowicz had led his followers there in the same direction.  A lively controversy ensued, which was protracted through six years.  Soon after the organization of the Minor Church in 1565, at the synod of Wengrow, with delegates in attendance from all parts of the kingdom, it was prayerfully and earnestly debated for six days whether the practice of infant baptism was commanded by Scripture.  It was concluded that the practice should be given up, though some liberty in the matter was left to individual consciences.

    The next question to be settled was yet more important, and it divided the Minor Church yet more deeply.  It was the question as to what view they should hold as to the person of Christ, and the Holy Spirit.  It soon came to be accepted without serious debate that the Holy Spirit was not to be worshiped as God, but the question as to Christ caused divisions which almost split the Church.  At the synod of Lancut (1567) which was called in order, if possible, to bring about harmony on this matter, the debate between the Arians and those who held that Christ did not exist before his birth upon earth, was so angry (the nobles were said with one exception to have been more moderate than the ministers) that the judges adjourned the discussion to a synod at Skrzynno later in the same year, and prepared for a more formal and orderly discussion by choosing the speakers and laying down rules for the conduct of the debate.  A hundred and ten nobles and ministers came together from all parts of Poland and Lithuania, besides a great crowd from the vicinity, all eager to hear the discussion.  No fixed agreement was reached as to the doctrines under discussion, but it was resolved that the Trinity should be reverently and sacredly retained with this condition, that the brethren should bear with one another in brotherly love and refrain from abusing one another in controversy; that each one should follow his own conscience as to baptism and the Lord’s Supper; and that they should claim no authority over one another in matters of faith, leaving it to God in his own time (as Christ had taught) to separate the tares from the wheat.  This action was for its time a remarkable step in the direction of religious tolerance, nor has it been surpassed to this day.  It did not, however, succeed at once in healing the divisions over the belief about Christ; for at the time of which we are speaking, the antitrinitarian movement in Poland was divided over this doctrine into four more or less distinct parties, which flourished mostly in separate localities.

    The first party was led by a minister named Farnowski (Farnovius), and hence they were called Farnovians.  Like Gonesius they held the Arian view that Christ had existed before the creation of the world, and should be worshiped as God, though they did not think it right to worship the Holy Spirit.  They declared that even the religion of the Mohammedans or the Jews was better than that of Athanasius.  They also opposed infant baptism.  Farnowski held so stoutly for these views that about 1568 his followers, having won the patronage of some distinguished nobles toward the edge of Hungary, separated from the rest and established their own churches and schools.  They held aloof for nearly fifty years, but after the death of their leader they either rejoined the other Antitrinitarians or else returned to the Calvinists.

    Another party was led by Czechowicz, a minister in Lithuania, where he had great influence.  After having been for some time an Arian, he adopted much more radical views, holding that Christ was a man born like other men, but that he was sinless and was made God (so Servetus had taught), and hence should be worshiped; while those who would not worship Christ he called semijudaizers.  He opposed infant baptism, and also held with the Anabaptists that Christians ought to practice nonresistance, and neither to bear arms nor to hold civil office; but at his death he urged his followers not to separate from the Minor Church.

    Yet a third party, about Krakow, followed the lead of that Gregory Paulus whom we have already met.  He too denied that Christ had existed before the creation of the world, and also denied that he should be worshiped.  He likewise opposed infant baptism, denied the authority of earthly powers, held that Christians should neither bear arms nor hold public office, advocated community of goods after the manner of the primitive Church, and expected Christ soon to appear again to set up the millennium.

    Finally there was a party called Budnaeans after their leader, Simon Budny of Lithuania.  He was a man of extraordinarily learning, who in 1572 had published a translation of the Bible into Polish which was highly esteemed, and two years later a separate one of the New Testament.  Of these four leaders he came nearest to the views of modern Unitarians, for he declared that Christ was naturally born like other men, and that to worship him was idolatry; but though he too had numerous followers in Lithuania, yet this teaching of his seemed to the churches at large so impious that he was excommunicated, as were some others who held similar views.

    Besides these questions of theological belief, the Minor Church during its earlier years was also much distracted by another group of questions relating to the practical conduct of the members as followers of Christ.  Many of these believers were conscientiously in earnest about trying to live in this world precisely as Christ had commanded, and to make his law of love the rule which should actually regulate all their actions.  They took his teachings literally, and did not try to explain them away when they seemed inconvenient or impracticable, but meant to follow them to the letter; and they took his example and that of his apostles and the early Church as a model for their imitation.  Therefore they did not believe in offering resistance to those who did them evil, but bore their wrongs and persecutions with Christian patience; they did not believe in bearing arms, for that was the first step toward going to war and breaking the commandment not to kill; they would not accept civil office, and some of them resigned important offices under the government, for all government rested upon force in place of Christ’s law of love; they would not take oaths, since Christ had commanded, “Swear not at all”; they believed in sharing their property in common with one another, for this had been the practice in the earliest Church at Jerusalem.  These were of course principles long before adopted by the first Anabaptists, and coming by way of Moravia they had spread more or less widely in Poland.  We have already seen that Gonesius, Czechowicz, and Paulus held such views as these, and they were especially rife in the vicinity of Krakow.  These views were by no means universally adopted by the Antitrinitarians.  Some adopted them wholly, some rejected them wholly, and doubtless the majority adopted a part and ignored the rest.  A local congregation, with Paulus for its minister, was founded at Krakow in 1569 on these principles, and from that time on they were repeatedly discussed in synods at the new center of Rakow.

    The significant thing about the unfortunate divisions of which we have spoken is the fact that when the members of the new movement found themselves left all at sea after having forsaken the old orthodox Creeds, they were so pathetically in earnest to draw out of Scripture its true doctrines, and to conduct their daily lives strictly according to the teachings of Jesus, let it cost them or their churches what it might in the way of persecution by the orthodox, or of separation from their brethren.  At any cost they would remain true to their consciences.  These divisions threatened for a time, however, to prove fatal to the movement altogether; and for several years the young church was occupied in trying either to find some common ground of belief, or if that could not be, then in finding some way of getting on together peaceably in spite of different beliefs.

    A little catechism published in 1574 in the name of the Anabaptist congregation at Krakow, though probably composed by Schomann, Paulus’s colleague in the ministry there, is of great interest for being the first such work to be printed in the history of the movement we are tracing.  It is supported throughout by texts of Scripture, and teaches that Christ was a man who brought eternal life to the world, and that he is to be adored and prayed to as our mediator with God, and to be followed as an example.  The Holy Spirit is not a person, but a power of God1 bestowed upon Christ and men. The taking of oaths, and the resistance to injuries, are forbidden.  Baptism is to be by immersion, and to be administered only to adults.  These Anabaptists in Poland, as elsewhere, tended to run into extravagances, and sometimes bordered on the fanatical; but on the whole they formed the vital heart and soul of the new church, and their influence is to be traced throughout its whole history.  The strictness of their morals, the gentleness of their lives, and their consistent obedience to conscience, never failed to win the praise of even those who were most opposed to their doctrines.

    When the members and congregations of the Minor Church were so divided in opinion during its infancy, and were so much opposed to one another just because they were divided in opinion, it must have had the less strength left either to extend itself or to repel attacks from without; and there was a far greater danger than perhaps was realized that the Church might therefore fall quite to pieces, and come to an end in less than a generation.  Another danger, however, which the members did keenly realize and acutely fear, came from the relentless and bitter attacks of their enemies. For not content with what they had already accomplished by excluding the antitrinitarian party from the Reformed Church, the orthodox at once laid further plans for overthrowing them altogether.  Uniting with the Catholics at the Diet of Lublin in 1566, they put pressure upon the king to issue an edict against Anabaptists and Tritheists (as they called the Antitrinitarians), requiring them to leave the realm within a month, and they spared no pains to get it strictly enforced.  They struck first at Filipowski who, as Treasurer of the Palatinate of Krakow, was perhaps the most influential of all the Antitrinitarians, and he barely escaped with his life.  The rest, remembering the fate of Servetus, Gentile, and others, scattered like sheep before wolves, some going into the country, others seeking shelter with nobles powerful enough to protect them.  After a time, through the influence of one of his highest officials, who was himself an Antitrinitarian, the king was persuaded to grant them indulgence during his lifetime, and so the storm blew over.

    Nothing daunted by his recent experiences, Filipowski still attempted to make peace with the enemy.  To this end he went with some of the brethren to attend a great synod held at Krakow in 1568 by the Lutherans and Calvinists, who proposed to unite against Catholic oppression on the one hand, and Anabaptist heresies on the other.  He powerfully urged there that all parties use mutual tolerance as to doctrines on which they differed, and consent to live together in Christian love.  The orthodox would not yield an inch; one notable convert was gained there, however, in the person of Andrew Dudicz.  He was a Hungarian noble who, for his talents, learning, and the distinguished part he played in public affairs, was one of the most celebrated men of his age.  He had been councillor to three emperors, and bishop of three sees in succession, had been one of the most prominent delegates to the Council of Trent, and had been sent on various important embassies.  Having become Protestant, he had joined the Reformed Church at Krakow; but when he observed with what bitterness its leaders spoke of their opponents, and how they rejected the peaceable advances made by Filipowski, he left them for the Minor Church, whose doctrines also approved themselves to him as more reasonable, and became patron of its congregation at Schmiegel in the province of Great Poland, where he built them a church and school, which he supported till his death.

    Though again rebuffed, the Antitrinitarians still hungered for religious fellowship which they might enjoy while yet preserving full liberty of belief.  They were not a little cheered therefore when they heard the next year (1569), through the reports of a traveler, that the Anabaptists of Moravia, among whom we have already found our exiles from Italy and Switzerland hospitably received,2 agreed with them in all respects except as to the holding of public office, which was against the Anabaptist principles; and since much was related of their singular piety, charity, and purity of morals, Filipowski, with several of the brethren, now undertook a mission to the Moravians, hoping to bring about some form of union with them.  Here again they were doomed to disappointment; for although the Moravian brethren were found to be otherwise all that had been told of them, they were such ardent defenders of the received doctrine of the Trinity that they did not scruple to call their visitors heathen for denying it.  The brethren therefore returned in deep discouragement, and most of the ministers of Little Poland gave up preaching.

    A turn in their affairs for the better, however, was unexpectedly to come from another quarter, through the death of the king.  Sigismund Augustus, though nominally a Catholic, was at heart much inclined toward the Reformation, having twenty years before been influenced in that direction by Lismanino;3 and there were indications that he inwardly favored the antitrinitarian party in the Reformed Church.  He had taken so much interest in the discussions of the doctrine of the Trinity that he got his secretary, Modrzewski, to draw up an account of the differences between the two parties, with the arguments on both sides, hoping to find some way to bring the two factions together.  The manuscript of this book (the famous Sylvae) accidentally fell into the hands of one of the orthodox party, who found it so favorable to the Antitrinitarians that he carried it away, and would not return it, lest it get into print and make converts; and it was therefore not published until twenty-five years later.  Had the king lived, the Minor Church might have had much to hope from him; but he died in 1572, and his dynasty thus became extinct.  The nobles took advantage of this occasion to make sure of securing their full rights under any future rulers.  They drew up a new law, making it a condition of the election of any new king, that he should take his oath to preserve peace among the religious sects, and they sacredly pledged themselves and their posterity, that, though differing from one another as to religion (dissidentes4 de religione), they would keep the peace with one another, would not shed one another’s blood, nor punish one another in any way, nor assist a magistrate in doing so, and would with all their might oppose anyone who on any pretext should attempt such a thing.  There were numerous representatives of the Minor Church in the Diet which passed this compact (the celebrated pax Dissidentium, 1573), and they became parties to it along with the rest; and although its provisions were later violated, and were eventually ignored altogether, nevertheless it became a fundamental law of the land, and secured the Minor Church an existence of nearly a century.

    Despite the persecutions they had suffered and the dangers they had run, the number of adherents of the Minor Church continued large; and under the protection of the new law it now increased rapidly, especially among the educated nobility; for they, not having been so strictly trained up in the subtleties of theology as the clergy had been, felt less devoted to the teachings of the creeds; while, like all Protestants of that period, they were keenly interested in the study of the Scriptures, and as they read those they could not but see that they contained little enough to support the peculiar doctrine of the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds.  The Diet of the kingdom was said to be filled with “Arians,” and their beliefs found wide acceptance among all classes except the ignorant peasantry who, being little better than serfs, were little regarded by any of the Protestant churches.  Within a generation churches were established in every part of the kingdom, from Danzig to Kijow (Kief), and from northern Lithuania to the Carpathians; but most numerously in Little Poland and Lithuania, while in Great Poland they were few and widely scattered.

    No mean factor in the growth of the Minor Church was the city of Rakow, founded in 1569 by a powerful magnate named Sieninski.  Though a Calvinist, he offered the residents of his new town, among other advantages, that of perfect freedom of religious worship.  Many of the Antitrinitarians therefore, being apprehensive of persecution where they were, came from all parts of the kingdom and settled here; among them Gregory Paulus who, having been driven from Krakow, founded a church at Rakow which eventually became the leading one in all Poland.  The new congregation grew rapidly, and its preachers were men of the greatest reputation.  The Anabaptists regarded Rakow as almost a new Jerusalem, and it came to be looked on as an especial object of divine providence.  For a time rather extreme Anabaptist views were rife here, and in the church school all scholars were required to learn some manual trade.  Numerous synods were held at Rakow, and it became for sixty years or more the center and source of all the main influences in the Minor Church.  The more important part of its history, however, belongs in a later chapter.

    We have now reached a point in our history where this church seemed in a way to become fairly established.  While disputes on the points we have mentioned were still rife among its members well on into the seventeenth century, yet they had now ceased to be a source of serious danger to the church’s existence; for however much in earnest the members might be over their doctrines, the principle of mutual tolerance and charity was firmly established and generally accepted among them.  Although still hated as before by both Catholics and Protestants, they now stood under the equal protection of the law which was in the interest of all the churches alike, and the age of civil persecution seemed past.  One thing was still needful, if they were to have a vigorous life and a wide growth under these favorable conditions; and that was a leader who could do for them what Luther and Calvin had done for their churches: organize their system of thought, lead them in counsel, and direct them in action.  Such a leader soon appeared in the person of Faustus Socinus.


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