Faustus Socinus and the Full Development of Socinianism in Poland, 15791638


    At the time when, as we saw in the last chapter, the Polish Antitrinitarians most needed leadership, the needed leader appeared in the person of Faustus Socinus (in Italian, Fausto Sozzini).  He organized their beliefs into a consistent system purged of extravagances and extreme positions; he ably represented them in their controversies with their opponents both Catholic and Protestant; and although a foreigner he so won their confidence and love, and so stamped himself upon their movement, that it eventually came to be known after him as Socinianism, by which name, for the sake of convenience, we shall henceforth refer to it.1  Socinus was born at Siena, Italy, in 1539, and was nephew of Lælius Socinus, whom we found as one of the Antitrinitarians at Zürich in the time of Calvin.2  When he was but two years old his father died, leaving him to be brought up without regular education, as he never ceased to regret; and the law, in which many of his family had distinguished themselves, never attracted him.  Soon after he became of age, the Sozzini family fell under suspicion of being Protestant heretics.  One of them was seized by the Inquisition, and the rest fled, among them Faustus, who for some two years lived mostly at Lyon, though he was at Geneva long enough to become a member of the Italian church there.   While he was at Lyon, his uncle Lælius died, leaving him his manuscripts, most of them on religious subjects.  These may well have planted in his mind seeds that were to ripen later, but for a time they seem to have made no impression upon him; for he returned to Italy the next year, and from 1563 to 1575 lived the life of a courtier at Florence, in the service of Isabella de’ Medici, daughter of the Grand-Duke Cosimo of Tuscany, remaining outwardly a good Catholic. During this period he published a book On the Authority of Holy Scripture which was highly esteemed by both Catholics and Protestants, was translated into several languages, and continued in circulation for over a century and a half.

    Upon the death of his patroness Socinus refused all inducements to remain longer at court, left Italy never to return, and went to Basel which was then a place of considerable religious freedom, and for three years applied himself to the study of religious subjects, chiefly the Bible.  While there he wrote a treatise showing much independence of thought, On Christ the Savior, in which he defended the view that Christ is our Savior not because he suffered for our sins, but because he showed us the way to eternal salvation, which consists in our imitating him; and that he did not suffer to satisfy God’s justice nor to appease his wrath.  This view was in sharp contrast to that then generally held, and although the book was at first circulated only in manuscript, and was not published until years later in Poland, it at once established his reputation as an able and independent theologian.  The result was that he was soon urged to come to Transylvania to assist in a discussion then going on there over the question whether Christians should worship Christ.  The account of that discussion will be found in a later chapter: when it was done Socinus proceeded to Poland, where he arrived early in 1579.  Here he was to spend twenty-five fruitful years in promoting the religious movement whose history we are following.  He was now forty years old.

    Coming to the capital at Krakow, Socinus found in the Anabaptist congregation there a company of Christians with whom he so much sympathized that the following year, at a synod at Rakow, he applied for admission to their membership.   Now while he had been baptized in infancy, the new church insisted that before joining it he must receive adult baptism. This he declined to have done, for he thought that it would be an admission that baptism was necessary to a Christian, which he did not at all believe, though he did not object to the practice for any that wished it for themselves.  He was also found to disagree with them on several other important doctrines.  The church therefore rejected his application for membership and refused to admit him to the Lord’s Supper.  He took no offense, however, but continued to worship with them, attend their synods, defend them against their opponents in controversy, and take part in their doctrinal discussions.  It was in these last that he did the most valuable service to the cause by bringing about harmony of opinion.   For he had a profound acquaintance with the Bible, to which appeal was always made on these occasions, and was an accomplished debater; and best of all he invariably kept his temper in controversy and never abused his opponents (as was then generally done, even in religious debate), but instead preserved the manners of a courtier, and relied upon the calm appeal to reason.

    His influence with the churches was not a little increased when, having been forced by threats of prosecution to leave Krakow, and having accepted the hospitality of a nobleman in the vicinity, he presently married his host’s only daughter, and thus became connected with many persons of great influence.  At two synods in 1584 he argued powerfully against the belief of many who expected Christ soon to appear again upon earth, and also in favor of the worship of Christ, without which, he maintained, we should be no better than Jews or even atheists.  At the request of the churches he replied to attacks that had been made upon their doctrine of the unity of God by professors in the Jesuit college at Posen.  He confuted the Arians; and the number of those who came to agree with him steadily increased, especially among the younger men.   At length, at the synod of Brest in Lithuania in 1588, where he discussed the main points of doctrine, it was clear that he had won over all but a very few of the most obstinate, and henceforth he was the acknowledged leader of the thought of the Minor Church.

    From this time on for fifty years Socinianism had a brilliant career in Poland.  Rakow was its capital and the center of its influence.  Its Calvinistic proprietor became interested in Socinianism and instituted a public discussion of doctrines between Calvinists and Socinians, and as a result of this he joined the latter in 1600.  Two years later he established a school there.  Its teachers were able scholars with reputation throughout Europe.  It grew rapidly and became famous.  Young men were sent to it from both Catholic and Protestant sources until it had about a thousand students, nearly a third of them from the nobility.  Rakow became known as “the Sarmatian Athens.”  So many came here even from Germany that special services in the German language were held for them.  In this school young men were trained up for the Socinian ministry under teachers whose fame survives among scholars to this day.  A fine press was also removed from Krakow and set up here, and on it were printed large numbers of works by Socinian writers, whose faith was thus spread in print over all Europe.  General synods for all Poland were held here every year, and ministers and nobles from all parts of the kingdom came to attend them.

    There were also churches in almost all the other important cities, and every large church had a school by its side, conducted by one of the younger clergy.

    Although Socinianism was the least numerous of the three forms of Protestantism in Poland, none had a more distinguished company of adherents. We have already noted to what extent it had spread among the nobility. One of their apologists writing later in an age of persecution fills six pages with a list of early Antitrinitarians and later Socinians who had held public offices of the highest distinction in the kingdom, and there were said to be none of the greatest families in Poland or Lithuania, even those of dukes and princes, but were related to some of the Socinians.  It is even true that for a short time one who had been brought up in the Socinian faith sat upon the throne of Russia (1605 – 1606), the so-called False Demetrius, pretended son of the late Czar.  A Catholic historian of Polish literature bears witness that the Socinians were intellectually the most advanced, cultivated, and talented of all the Polish dissidents, and that they left an enduring impression on the history of Polish literature.

    The official records of the Minor Church, though long jealously guarded, have now long since vanished from sight, so that it is impossible to say just how widely the Church extended.  But we know of a synod at Rakow in 1612 which was attended by 400 delegates, and of another in 1618 by 459, and the names of 115 churches are still on record; so that it would probably not be unfair to estimate that first and last there were as many as 300 Socinian congregations,3 though many of these were prematurely crushed out by persecution, or were lost through a change of patron.   Their form of government was practically the same as that of the Reformed Church.   The churches were organized into synods composed of ministers and lay delegates.   There was probably one of these for each palatinate or county, perhaps one for each province, and over them all a general synod for the whole kingdom which met at Rakow for a week or two each year.

    Each synod elected a superintendent for its own district, who appointed ministers and teachers for the local churches, assigned them their locations or removed them, and also visited the churches each year.  He was assisted by elders, both lay and clerical.  Annual synods were held in each palatinate and local synods more frequently if occasion required.  At these everything was attended to that concerned the welfare and growth of the church.  Ministers were ordained and teachers named for the home churches, and missionaries appointed to spread the faith in other countries; salaries for ministers and teachers were voted out of a common fund raised by apportionment among the churches; aid was voted for promising young men to study for the ministry at Rakow or at foreign universities; grants were made to be distributed by the deacons to widows and orphans or others in need; pensions were granted to retired ministers and teachers; aid was sent to needy brethren living abroad or banished on account of their faith; differences which had arisen between the members, if they could not be privately settled, were adjusted here, for the Socinians, following the teaching of Jesus, never resorted to the law courts except as a last resort; breaches of morality received earnest attention; and the editing and publishing of books which might spread the faith were provided for.  Any matters which could not be settled in the local synods were carried up to the general synod.

    It was from these synods, also, that those proposals for union with other churches proceeded, which were repeatedly made by the Socinians, and as often rejected by the orthodox.  Socinus had never desired to be the founder of a new sect, and he never claimed to be anything more than merely a Christian; and one of his most interesting writings is an address in which he endeavored to persuade the members of the rapidly dwindling Reformed Church of their duty as Christians to join in one free national church with “those who are falsely and unjustly called Arians and Ebionites.”  We have already noticed an early attempt to unite with the Moravian Anabaptists.   A similar move for union with the Reformed Church was made in 1580, when representatives of the Minor Church went to a Reformed synod at Lewartow hoping for a conference on the subject; but the Reformed refused to have anything to do with them, “since they were followers of Ebion, Arius, and Paul of Samosata, who had long ago been excommunicated from the Church.”  Another attempt at union was made at Rakow in 1598, but the conference which took place came to nothing, whereupon Socinus issued the address above referred to.

    A few years later, when it was becoming evident that Catholics, instigated by the Jesuits, were beginning a systematic policy of attack upon all Protestants, efforts were for the third time renewed for union with the Reformed.   From 1611 on several conferences with the Reformed were held, which for a time gave promise of success, on a basis of mutual tolerance of differences of belief.  But the Jesuits had poisoned the minds of the Reformed against the Socinians as enemies of all Christendom, and the Reformed refused to consider any union unless the Socinians would agree to their doctrines as to the Trinity, the atonement, and baptism; while one of their theologians published a book to show that the two could no more unite than fire and water.   Nor did an attempt in 1619 at a purely political alliance between them against the Catholics succeed any better.  Not until too late did the Reformed discover that only by all standing together could the Protestants of Poland have prevented the destruction which at length overwhelmed them all.

    Prospects for union with the Mennonites of Holland might have seemed brighter, for these were descended from the Anabaptists of earlier times,4 and had many points in common with the Socinians; yet the latter’s proposal in 1612 was declined as impracticable.  Twenty years later the Remonstrants of Holland, also, who had lately protested against the doctrines of Calvin, and were then suffering bitter persecution and exile in consequence, gave ground for yet brighter hopes of union; but when this was proposed to them in 1632 it was nevertheless refused perhaps because the Remonstrants had already been accused by their enemies of being Socinians in disguise, and were unwilling to do anything which could be taken for an admission of the charge.  Thus the Socinians were on every hand persistently shut off from all religious fellowship; and even as late as 1645, when a friendly conference of all religious persuasions was called together at Thorn (the Colloquium Charitativum), and when danger from the Catholic quarter was more threatening than ever, they were still refused admission to it among the other Protestants.

    The Socinians showed the depth and sincerity of their devotion to their faith not only by suffering ostracism and persecution for it, but also by their zealous and persistent efforts to spread it among others both at home and abroad.  To the very end of their existence in Poland they were active and wonderfully zealous propagandists.  Their favorite missionary method at home was through public debates, if these could be arranged with their opponents; and they had such confidence in their cause that though others might shrink from debate, they themselves never did.  They preferred to have these debates conducted like the discussions of learned men, under prescribed rules and forms, with theses and antitheses, objections and refutations, made by the debaters in due order, and preferably submitted in writing.  These would then be printed for people to read and digest at leisure.  Thus they depended far more on reason and argument than on mere eloquence or passion.  The most famous of all these discussions was one with the Jesuits.  It was carried on entirely by the pen, lasted from 1603 to 1618, and was comprised in more than twenty printed books.  In these discussions the attitude of the Socinians was never timid or apologetic, but habitually bold and aggressive; yet their imitation of the habit of Socinus in carrying on their discussions with good temper and in mild speech set a new and good example, and won praise even from their opponents.  They are said also to have won many converts through the fine spirit that prevailed in their discussions among themselves at their synods.   Their use of the printing press has already been spoken of, and it made Socinianism well known and its influence greatly feared all over Europe.  The number of religious books they published was astonishing,5 and a great flood of writings came forth in answer to them, from Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists.

    The Socinians also made liberal appropriations for sending missionaries into the other countries of Europe.  It was only in rare cases that these dared venture upon public preaching, for freedom of worship did not yet exist anywhere west of Poland; and more than once these missionaries were arrested, imprisoned, or banished for trying to propagate their faith, and were released only on condition of ceasing to do so in future.  Their most successful method, therefore, was to send abroad their most polished and cultivated scholars, who would form influential acquaintances, converse with them on religious subjects, put Socinian books into their hands, and thus influence the opinions of the leaders of thought.  In this way a far-reaching influence was early exerted in Holland; and such missionaries went also to Germany, France, and England.  Of course, with laws against heresy being as they were, such a thing as establishing Socinian churches abroad was entirely out of the question.

    The most effective of these silent missionaries were the young men who went to the western universities to continue the education they had begun at Rakow in preparation for the ministry.  They thus made secret converts among the students at Leiden, Strassburg, Heidelberg, and most of all at Altorf,6 which for a few years early in the seventeenth century was a veritable hot-bed for propagating Socinians.   The Rector of this school, Dr. Soner, had been converted to Socinianism by some Polish students at Leiden when he was studying there, and he kept up a correspondence with the brethren in Poland.  Socinian students from there flocked to his lectures, and with his encouragement made many converts among the Germans and others studying there.   These young Socinians formed a secret society among themselves, and after the manner of the learned academies of the time they gave themselves fictitious Latin names, and thus the better kept their secret.  In 1616 however their secret was discovered by the authorities, and they were arrested and for a time imprisoned; after which a few recanted, though most were expelled and returned to Poland.  One result of this foreign propaganda was that not a few of the most eminent Socinian ministers and scholars in Poland and Transylvania were men of foreign birth and education who had been converted by these means, and had then been obliged to remove thither to enjoy their faith in peace.

    Long before Socinianism had reached the widespread influence which we have described, Socinus himself had died.  His young wife had early been taken from him, leaving him only an infant daughter; his estate in Italy had been confiscated, and now, broken in fortune, health, and spirit, he retired to the home of a friendly noble at Luclawice in the foothills of the Carpathians, where he died in 1604, aged sixty-five.   Legend says that his grave was later opened and his ashes scattered by fanatics, but the place of his burial is known, and a battered monument still remains to mark the spot.7  During these last years he was surrounded by sympathetic friends, most prized among them being Stoinski, the eloquent and scholarly young minister of the place.  Socinus occupied his time in writing books, and in making visits far and wide among the churches.  His last occupation was in trying to make a systematic statement of Christian doctrine for the use of the churches.  Together with Stoinski, he had been requested to revise the Catechism of 1574 then in use, and he left behind him unfinished a brief system of instruction in the Christian religion in the form of a Catechism (Christianæ Religionis brevissima Institutio), as well as the fragment of another Catechism.

    Stoinski died the year after Socinus, but their unfinished work was continued and completed after their death by Schmalz, Moskorzowski, and Völkel, and was published in Polish in 1605 at Rakow (Latin, Racovia), whence it came to be known as the Racovian Catechism.  This little book, which passed through six editions in Latin, one in German, two in Dutch, and two in English (not to mention the children’s Catechism based upon it and published in Polish, Latin, and German), was in print for more than two centuries, was very widely circulated throughout Europe, and was answered or attacked numberless times by orthodox theologians, who seemed to suffer acute fear lest its teachings should spread in their churches.  Beyond doubt it did more than any other book ever published (except the New Testament itself) to spread Unitarian ways of thinking about religion.  Its teaching therefore deserves special attention.

    The keynote to the whole system of Socinian doctrine seems to lie in the text: “This is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent”; and the Christian religion is defined at the outset as a way of attaining this eternal life, divinely revealed in the Scriptures (especially the New Testament), which certain proofs show to be true, which are easy to understand, and which contain all things necessary for salvation.  Throughout the book, therefore, the proof of its teaching is drawn from the Bible, and only in a few instances are orthodox doctrines opposed on the ground that they are unreasonable.

    Man is by nature mortal, and the only way for him to gain eternal life is by knowledge of God and Christ.  It is of the utmost importance, then, that this knowledge be correct, else our hopes of eternal life would be imperiled.   We must therefore know that God is only one in person, for belief in the Trinity may easily destroy the faith in one God; and we must also know that Christ is by nature a true man, though not a mere man, for he was miraculously born.  On these two main heads there are long arguments against the orthodox view.

    We must also acknowledge Christ as God, being one who has divine power over us, and one to whom we are bound to show divine honor in adoration, and whose aid we can ask in any need; adoring him for his sublime majesty, and seeking aid of his divine power.  Those who do not do this are not Christians. Jesus was sinless, and wrought miracles.  He rose from the dead, thus assuring us that we shall rise also; his resurrection is therefore much more important than his death, though by dying for us sinful men be showed us the way to return to God and be reconciled to him.

    The Holy Spirit is not a person in the godhead, but a power of God bestowed on men from on high.

    There is no such thing as original sin, or predestination; and men are justified in the sight of God only through their faith in Christ, who now lives in heaven, making continual intercession for us, whence he will come to judge the living and the dead.

    There is only one sacrament, the Lord’s Supper, which is a memorial rite.  Baptism is only an outward rite by which converts to Christianity publicly acknowledge their faith in Christ.  Infant baptism is unscriptural, though those that practice it without trying to force it on others should not be condemned or persecuted.  The Church is a company of Christians who hold and profess sound doctrine.

    These teachings, which are all given in the ordinary catechism form of question and answer, are those that would seem most striking to a modern reader of the first edition of the Racovian Catechism.  Later editions greatly enlarged and somewhat changed this first edition; but these teachings remained substantially as given.  It may be noted that the Catechism is in close harmony with the Apostles’ Creed, so far as that goes; and indeed Socinians were always wont to appeal to that as against the later creeds.  It is noteworthy also that, except for the subject of baptism, little is found of the peculiar teachings of the Anabaptists or the Arians, though in limited localities or under individual ministers Socinians still adhered to these.  If the Catechism is far from being orthodox, it is also far from modern Unitarianism.  Yet the root of the matter was there; for in its freedom from the authority of the creeds, in its free and scholarly way of explaining scripture, in its appeal to reason and its emphasis on right conduct (both of these much more emphasized in the later editions), and in its tolerance of different opinions, it came close to the fundamental principles of the Unitarianism of the twentieth century.

    The true character and worth of a religion, however, can not be learned from its catechism or its creeds, any more than the character and worth of a man from his skeleton.  If we would truly know what Socinianism was, we must consider not only its theory but its practice.  We should need to attend its services of religious worship, hear its sermons, hymns, and prayers, observe the earnestness and devotion of the people to their religion, and above all note what effect it had upon their daily life, and what kind of characters it produced.  Unfortunately we can not do that, for as we shall soon see, Socinianism in Poland came after a century to a tragic end.  Yet fortunately there have been preserved to us some detailed accounts of their church customs, and many comments upon their characters.  We know, therefore, that the Socinians, both in Poland and in exile, were a very sincerely devout people.  They observed Sunday very strictly, holding two or three services on Sundays and holy days, to which the members often came from long distances; and there was also preaching on Wednesdays and Fridays, and frequent days of fasting and prayer were observed.  Every nobleman’s house had its chapel, and domestic worship with scripture and prayer was held twice daily.  They held the Lord’s Supper very sacred, and counted it a great deprivation to be kept away from it; and they emphasized the importance of private devotional life.  When members of their church therefore were scattered or distant from church privileges, great pains were taken to send them ministers from time to time to preach and administer the Lord’s Supper.

    Their moral standards also were very strict and strictly observed; and it was a regular part of their church discipline to watch carefully over one another’s characters and admonish one another like brothers and sisters.  If a member did wrong and did not show repentance for it, the matter was dealt with in the church meeting; and if he persisted he was forbidden to come to the Lord’s Supper.   Though they did not adopt the Anabaptist doctrines into their Catechism many of them followed the Anabaptist traditions in the conduct of their lives.  Indeed they strove to make their churches as nearly as possible like the first Christian churches, and they tried literally to follow the teachings of Jesus.  They looked watchfully after the wants of their poor, the widows, and the orphans.  They would not fight, nor go to law, nor avenge injuries, nor hold serfs; they were peaceable, patient, gentle, forgiving, unostentatious, and they lived exemplary lives.  In many respects they resembled the Quakers, though their more extreme views and practices were not adhered to always and by all their members, and tended to become modified in the course of time; yet a clear Anabaptist strain always persisted, and to the very end some refused to bear arms or to hold civil office.  This is the general testimony of both their friends and their foes.  We have already seen how eager they were to spread among others the faith which they held; and we shall see in the next chapter how ready they were to suffer the loss of everything rather than forsake it.  In fact, a recent Catholic historian says that Polish “Arianism” was the most interesting page in Polish religious history, and that no other confession in Poland can count so high a percentage of authors in the seventeenth century; and that one reason why their numbers did not become larger was that their demands were too strict.


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