The Decline and Fall of Socinianism, and Its Banishment from Poland, 16381660


    The last chapter told the happy story of how Socinianism, in spite of many obstacles, overcame them all and rose to a position of widespread influence in Poland.  All the while it was gaining strength, however, clouds were gathering below the horizon which were eventually to break into a storm which should overwhelm in ruin not only Socinianism but at length all of Polish Protestantism.  We must now go back to trace this other story from its beginning.

    The rise of Protestantism in Poland reached its height with the Union of Sandomir1 (Consensus Sandomiriensis) in 1570, and the power of the Catholics in the affairs of the nation was then at a low ebb, with only a minority in either house of the Diet.  Shortly after this the orthodox Protestants proposed to put all “Arians” under the ban; but to this the Catholics would not consent, since it would seem to imply an increased recognition of the other Protestants.  This Union was repeatedly confirmed among the orthodox Protestant bodies for twenty-five years, though the Minor Church was persistently excluded from it.  Further than this however, orthodox opposition no longer attempted to go.  The trouble was instead to come from the Catholic side, and it was initiated under Cardinal Hosius, a man of great learning and of the most admirable personal character, but an extreme Catholic whose convictions led him to subordinate every other interest to the welfare of the church, and to urge that it would be to the detriment of the church for the government to keep any promise it might have made to protect the Protestant heretics in their rights, when they deserved to be utterly exterminated.

    The order of Jesuits now comes into the story.  It had been founded in 1539, and had ere long come to devote itself especially to overthrowing Protestantism; and in 1564 Cardinal Hosius invited Jesuits to come to Poland for this purpose.  They came in large numbers from Spain and Germany and began opening schools all over the land, some fifty of them in all, and amply endowed.  All that the Protestant nobles seemed to realize of what was going on was that here were better schools than they had known before, taught by talented scholars and polished gentlemen, many of them of noble birth; and they therefore soon began sending their sons to these new schools for their education.  What the Jesuits intended was that these young Polish nobles, after having been kept for some years under their instruction, should many of them be won over to the Catholic faith, so that in a generation or two (and they were always willing to work on long lines) most of the ruling classes of Poland would again be back in the fold of the church.  So it turned out, for within two generations they had all Poland securely in their net, and were prepared to draw it whenever they found the time ripe.  Their policy was to win the confidence and favor of the upper classes without at first revealing their purpose, then to push against the Protestants in general whenever a favorable opportunity presented itself, and finally to divide the Protestants against one another.  This last purpose was all too easily accomplished, for the orthodox were ready enough to attack the “Arians,” and were glad repeatedly to join with the Catholics against those heretical Protestants as enemies of all Christendom.  It was not until too late, when they had themselves fallen victims to this policy, that it dawned upon them that they had been used as tools to help carry out the far-sighted Jesuit plan for overthrowing all Polish Protestantism.

    The tolerant King Sigismund Augustus II died in 1572, as we have seen, and Henry of Valois who succeeded him wore his Polish crown but a few months before going to receive a more shining one in France as Henry III.  The election to the throne next fell (1574) to Stephen Bathori, Prince of Transylvania, whom we shall later meet in connection with the history of Unitarianism in that country.  When elected he was supposed to be a Protestant, but soon afterwards he openly professed the Catholic faith and married the sister of the late king, who was under Jesuit influence.  The Jesuits therefore won his support, although through the thirteen years of his reign he maintained the liberties of the Protestants, and resisted all pressure to break his coronation oath to them, declaring that he was king only of people, but not of their consciences, which were subject to God alone.2  Yet even in his reign the Catholic reaction began, and in the strongly Catholic capital of Krakow preaching against heretics so excited the populace that from 1574 on they formed mobs which sacked the Reformed church, outraged the Protestant cemeteries, and attacked Protestant inhabitants; and similar things were done at Wilno, the capital of Lithuania.  The king indeed expressed his disapproval, but nothing effectual was done to punish these acts.

    During the long reign of Sigismund Wasa III (1587 – 1632), matters rapidly grew worse.  Persecution of all Protestants increased, and whereas at the king’s accession there were (beside the bishops) but few Catholics in the Senate, when he died the Protestants had only two members, their power was practically broken, and royal confirmation of their rights had become little more than a solemn farce.  The “Jesuit king,” as he was called, was a bigoted zealot.  He had been brought up under the influence of the Jesuits, had joined their order, and even become a cardinal; and he did everything possible to favor them.  Anti-Protestant riots, which the Jesuits stirred up among the lower classes, became more and more frequent at Krakow, where the Reformed church was at length burned and never rebuilt.  In various other cities where Protestants were much in the minority the same sort of thing occurred, churches and schools were destroyed, and any attempt at punishing the outrages was blocked.  At the same time the Jesuits were intriguing with the higher classes, all the highest offices were at their instigation given to Catholics, while the Protestant nobles were forced to content themselves with inferior offices and honors only.  This in itself furnished a powerful temptation to a Polish noble to turn Catholic again, and many of them yielded to it.

    Our main interest here, however, is with the persecution as it affected the Socinians.  Open attacks on them began in this reign, and as they had fewer powerful patrons than the Reformed, they could not so successfully defend themselves. Their meeting-place at Krakow was destroyed by a mob in 1591.  Three years later Socinus himself was attacked in the streets there and had his face smeared and his mouth filled with mud by order of a Polish knight who charged him with being an “Arian,” and with having undermined his father’s religious faith.  When his work On Christ the Savior was published at Krakow in the same year, hatred against him flamed up afresh; and at length in 1598, when he was ill in bed, a mob led by students of the university broke into the house, sacked it and dragged him half-naked from his bed and through the streets to the market-place, where they burned his books and priceless manuscripts, and threatened to burn him too unless he would recant.  He did not weaken even in sight of death, but when he saw a drawn sword above his head he calmly declared, “I will not recant.  What I have been, that I am and by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ shall be till my last breath.  Do whatever God allows you to do.”  When they saw that their threats could not frighten him, they set out to throw the stubborn heretic into the Vistula, and would have done so without more ado had not the rector and two of the professors of the university, though Catholics, rescued him by a ruse, at great risk to themselves.

    The first actual martyr among the Socinians was Jan Tyskiewicz, a wealthy citizen of Bielsk.  His relatives coveted his property, and therefore laid a plot against him.  They forced him into the office of town treasurer, and then at the end of his year of office required him to take oath that he had faithfully discharged his duties.  He wished to obey the command of Jesus and “swear not at all,” though when pressed he yielded the point; but when ordered to swear either on the crucifix or by the Trinity he flatly refused, as it had been expected that he would do.  He was thereupon accused of trampling the crucifix under foot and blaspheming against the Trinity, was insulted and flogged by the magistrate, and condemned to death and thrown into prison.  He appealed to the Supreme Court, which declared him innocent and set him free, at the same time fining the magistrate for imposing an unjust sentence.  His enemies then appealed to the queen as ruler of this district, and she approved the original sentence and ordered it executed, whereupon the king and his Council passed this sentence of death: “Inasmuch as he has blasphemed, let his tongue be torn out; inasmuch as he has shown contempt of the magistrate to whom he was subject, and of her majesty’s decree by which he was brought before the magistrate, by daring to appeal his case to the Supreme Court, let him be beheaded as a stubborn rebel; inasmuch as he has trampled upon the crucifix, let his hand and his foot be cut off; and finally, inasmuch as he is a heretic, let him be burned.”  Jesuits and monks now besought him to change his faith, promising to have the sentence revoked and his property restored; but he remained deaf to all threats or promises, and was led to the stake in the market-place at Warsaw, 1611.

    From now on a systematic policy of extermination was pursued against the Socinians.  One of them was torn in pieces by a fanatical mob at Wilno and the courts took no notice.  Before long all the highest judges were Catholic, and one accused of heresy had little chance before them.  There were sporadic cases all over the kingdom, but the first general attack took place at Lublin in 1627.  Here the Socinians had long had one of their most flourishing churches, under the patronage of very distinguished nobles, and many synods had been held here, and many debates with their opponents.  Irritated at the unfavorable results of these discussions, the Catholics at length raised a mob and destroyed the Socinian church, and from the Supreme Court which sat there got a decree abolishing the church forever.  Despite the decree, secret worship was still maintained there for some years.

    All their previous troubles, however, were as nothing in comparison with the blow that fell upon the Socinians in the destruction of Rakow in 1638, by which, as one of them pathetically wrote not long after, “the very eye of Poland was put out, the asylum and refuge of exiles, the shrine of religion and the muses.”  A Catholic had set up a wooden crucifix by the roadside near the town.  At this two boys from the school at Rakow (whether in wanton mischief or out of misguided religious zeal is not clear) threw stones till they had broken it down.  They were duly punished by their parents, but this did not satisfy the Catholics, who were only too ready to seize this occasion for striking a killing blow at Socinianism.  The boys themselves, after being arrested and brought before the Diet at Warsaw, were let go, and instead of them, at the instigation of the Bishop of Krakow, the whole community of “Arians” at Rakow was charged with responsibility for the sacrilege.  First of all, Sieninski himself, the owner of the town and the patron of the church and school, was accused of treason against God and man; and the professors and ministers were accused of having put the students up to perpetrate their wicked act.  No proof which they could offer of their innocence was admitted; nor did they regard the oath of Sieninski himself that the act had been done without his knowledge, though he was a man in his seventies, who had formerly sacrificed his fortune in behalf of his country, and had often been hailed in the Diet as the Father of his Country.  His very son, whom he had allowed to be brought up in a Jesuit school and who had hence turned Catholic, turned against him.  The protests of many members of the lower house of the Diet, of all religions, Catholic included, were disregarded.  Most of the Protestant members were won over by the Jesuits to side against the Socinians as enemies of all Christianity, although some of them later confessed that they had made a fatal mistake.  The matter was not duly tried in court at all, nor even agreed upon by the whole Diet, but was disposed of in the Senate alone by summary process of law.  It was decreed that the school at Rakow be demolished, the church taken from the “Arians” and closed, the press removed, the ministers, professors, and teachers branded with infamy and outlawed, all which, says the Catholic historian, “was executed with all imaginable diligence.”

    The church edifice was of course taken over by the Catholics, richly endowed, and dedicated to the Holy Trinity, with a suitable inscription over the door relating what had been done.  Sieninski died within a year.  The Socinian congregation, what was left of it, removed to a neighboring village, and there in the house of a new patroness continued as before to meet for worship thrice a week, and devoted all of Fridays to fasting and prayer; but the patroness died a few years later, her estate came into the possession of a Catholic, and the church became extinct.  The ministers, though outlawed, found here or there a place where they might live in concealment, and after the feeling against them had somewhat subsided they at length became settled again over congregations in distant parts of the country.3   The school was combined with that of Kisielin in Volhynia, and there continued its existence until abolished by a decree of court.  After this the chief school of the Socinians was at Luclawice where Socinus had spent his last years, and Socinian books were published there.  The press at Rakow was taken down the Vistula and set up at Danzig.

    From now on blow followed blow in quick succession.  One church after another was, on one pretext or another, closed by decree of the court.  At Kisielin, where all the inhabitants are said to have been “Arians,” and at Beresko near by, school and church were ordered razed to the ground in 1644, two ministers long since dead were branded with infamy, and the Socinian proprietor was forced to pay some 20,000 florins for harboring proscribed ministers, and he and his sons were forbidden to allow Socinian worship on their estates.  Mobs in various places would sack the homes of prominent Socinians and assault their owners, even beating them to death.  Preachers were repeatedly arrested and brought into court, and persecution seemed to follow them like a shadow.  Schlichting, one of their most famous scholars, published a Confession of Faith in 1642, and for this was branded with infamy, proscribed, and compelled to spend several years in exile; while the book itself was publicly burned at Warsaw in 1647.  In Protestant territory in the neighboring kingdom of Prussia, where the Socinian faith had by this time begun to spread among the Lutherans enough to arouse their alarm, a decree was issued in 1640 to prevent its further spread, and not long afterwards some Socinian leaders were banished from Danzig in circumstances of the most unfeeling cruelty.

    With the destruction of Rakow, the end of Socinianism in Poland was already in sight, and it never recovered from the blow; but the inevitable was still further hastened by political events, and misfortunes now came thick, fast, and heavy.  The first scene in the last act was furnished by the Cossack war.  Socinianism had nowhere been more wide-spread and firmly established than in Volhynia, in southeastern Poland.  In 1618 the Cossacks, whom an atrocious wrong done by a Polish noble to one of their chiefs had stirred up to avenge long-standing oppressions, filled with savage hatred, broke out in rebellion, and swept like a whirlwind over all that part of the country as far as the Vistula, ravaging, pillaging, and destroying all with fire and sword.4  Whole cities were wiped out, the atrocities upon the inhabitants were frightful, and many of them were carried into slavery.  On account of religious hatred, the Cossacks, who were of the Eastern Church, were especially savage toward the Socinians.  Many of these in the Ukraine were killed, and over a thousand of them in headlong flight left all they possessed behind them, and sought refuge with the brethren in Little Poland.  The churches in this district were never reestablished.  The Cossacks were at length defeated, but they soon afterwards joined forces with the Russians and repeated in Lithuania5 in 1654 the ruin they had wrought in Volhynia six years before; and here also most of the Socinian churches were either destroyed or else irreparably weakened.

    The war with Russia dragged on for thirteen years, but before it was more than a year old the Protestant King Charles X of Sweden, taking advantage of Poland’s prostrate condition, made war upon her, and within a short time had overrun a large part of the country, captured the capital at Krakow, and driven the Polish king over the border.  Deserted by their own king, and pressed by the Russians in one quarter and the Cossacks in another, many of the Poles could do nothing for a time but submit to the king of Sweden.  The Protestants doubtless may have done this willingly enough, for Charles treated them more kindly than he did the Catholics, and they had perhaps more to hope from a foreign Protestant monarch than from their own Catholic one.  The Socinians submitted among the rest; and especially in Little Poland, where their Catholic neighbors were now taking advantage of the general anarchy to plunder their rich estates and murder them wherever found, many of them from the palatinate of Krakow fled to the capital in 1656 and sought and received the protection of the Swedish king as the only one who could guarantee their safety.  Under this protection they remained for some time, again enjoying full liberty of worship.

    By the next year the tide of war had begun to turn, and Charles found himself losing ground.  He therefore called on Prince George Rakoczy II of Transylvania in 1657 to assist him by invading Poland from the south, and the latter, lured by a hope of winning the Polish crown for himself, hastened to respond to the call. His troops, savage as the Cossacks had been, ravaged the district nearest Hungary, where Socinian churches were numerous, and thus completed the devastation that had been wrought in the rest of the country.  The fact that Socinian nobles were believed to have urged Rakoczy to intervene,6 and that many of his followers were Unitarians in religion, must have given fresh ground for charging the Socinians with disloyalty, for they were accused of having intrigued with him against their own king.

    When his fortunes were now at the lowest ebb, the Polish King John Casimir had made a solemn vow that if he won back his kingdom he would purge it of heresy; and when the Swedes had at length been expelled from the country, he set about to fulfill his vow, beginning with the Socinians, who were charged (however unjustly) with having been during the war the most disloyal of all, as well as the most bated and incidentally the weakest of the Protestant sects.  The scattered brethren were only just beginning to come out of their hiding-places and to hope for the blessings of peace at last, when they were again attacked, their houses burned, their goods plundered, and themselves wounded or murdered.  The Diet made only an empty response to their appeal for protection, and then proceeded in 1658 to enact a decree to expel the Socinians utterly and forever from the land.  It revived a decree against heresy which in 1424, more than a century before the Reformation, had been passed against the Hussites, had long been obsolete, and had been virtually abrogated by the Diet; and deliberately disregarding the law of general toleration which had been passed in 1573 and had been solemnly confirmed by every monarch since then, including the reigning king, it passed a law that if any one were found in the realms daring to profess or spread or preach the Arian doctrine, or to protect or comfort its adherents, and were lawfully convicted thereof, he should be subject to the law referred to, and without delay be put to death; but since they desired to show mercy, if any such person were found unwilling to renounce his errors, he should be granted three years to collect his debts; though meanwhile he should hold no worship of his sect, nor hold any public office.  There still remained, however, one Socinian member of the Diet, Tobias Iwanicki, and he invoked the liberum veto7 against the law; but so determined were the great majority to banish the Socinians at all costs that it was disregarded.

    This law struck its victims like a thunderbolt; but as if it had given them too generous indulgence in granting them three years to settle up their affairs, the next Diet shortened the term to two years, fixing the final date as July 10, 1660, though reminding them that the law would not be enforced against those who returned to the Catholic Church.  Some of the most wealthy nobles went over to the Reformed Church as the least of the evils, but this was soon forbidden by a new law.  Many of the common people, having no means of leaving the country, in desperation professed the Catholic faith as the only alternative to death; though even of these some later returned to their former faith.  Striking misfortunes soon after befalling some of these apostates were interpreted by those who had remained faithful as judgments of God upon apostasy.  The Catholics on their part felt that they had their reward, for the king declared that from this time on he began to be more successful against his enemies, and the Pope honored him with the coveted title of Orthodox King.8

    The Socinians, unable to believe that they must really suffer the cruel fate decreed against them, turned in every direction to find a way to avert it.  They petitioned to the king, endeavoring to show that they agreed with the Catholics in fundamentals, since they accepted the Apostles’ Creed; but in vain.  Some of the Socinian nobles who had been under the protection of the Swedish king at Krakow, and had followed in his train when he withdrew from the city, sought his influence to get the Socinians included with the others who had adhered to the King of Sweden, in the amnesty provided for in the treaty of Oliva which made peace between Sweden and Poland; but Lutheran opposition prevented this.  The Elector of Brandenburg, who had helped Poland to defeat Sweden, used his influence in their behalf, but to no purpose.  As a last resort, three or four months before the expiration of the time, many of the wealthiest Socinian nobles asked for a friendly discussion of the religious differences existing between themselves and the Catholics.  The Bishop of Krakow gave his sanction, and the Governor of Warsaw opened his palace at Roznow for the purpose.  In the end but few of the Socinians thought it safe to attend, but they were represented in debate by Andrew Wiszowaty, grandson of Socinus; while the Jesuits and other orders sent their ablest disputants.  The debates lasted five whole days.  Wiszowaty proved himself by far the ablest debater, and made a deep impression upon many of the Catholics present.  One of his principal opponents confessed to the governor that had all the devils come out of hell they could not have defended their religion more ably than this one man.  The result of the discussion was that the Catholics became somewhat milder in their persecution, and on the other hand that many of the wavering Socinians were confirmed to persevere in their faith.  Every inducement was offered the Socinians to renounce their faith and return to the Catholic Church; and Wiszowaty was promised by the governor a life estate and a generous pension if he would change his religion, but he could not be moved.

    Ever since the decree had been passed the Socinians had been generally treated as outlaws, and little protection had been afforded them.  Happy were those who had taken early opportunity to dispose of their property.  Those who waited until it was clear that there was no escape for them were able to sell only at the greatest sacrifices, some for a tenth of the real value, some for a twentieth, while some were unable to sell at all, and had to content themselves with a mere promise to pay, or to leave their property to well disposed friends to sell for them.  Meanwhile the faithful took every measure possible to preserve their churches and their faith from extinction.  At their synod in 1659 they laid all plans for holding worship and carrying on their church life in foreign lands as before, provided for publishing a book on the government of their churches; and that the memory of their past might not perish even though their children should at length live under other skies and forget the Polish tongue, they appointed one to write down their history.

    At last the fateful day arrived, when those who could still do so took their departure, carrying with them only their most valued possessions.  Many indeed were quite unable to get away at all.  It was estimated that a thousand families were left behind in the greatest destitution, especially in the palatinate of Krakow, and these had to go into hiding in remote places, or to seek the protection of friends who ventured to take the risk.  It was but a minority that were able to emigrate.  Every inducement to become Catholic appealed to those who had still dared remain.  Property, honors, and offices would at once be restored to them.  On the other hand any who aided them in any way, or had the least intercourse with them, were subject to confiscation of property without remedy; and since many were suspected of still lying concealed or being protected in the kingdom, another decree was passed in 1661 charging officers to use all diligence to search out and arrest any who could be discovered in the country.  All such were proscribed and their names posted at Warsaw, and without further hearing or opportunity for defense, all, whether women or girls, or those enfeebled by age or illness, were required to leave without the least delay, nor were even Socinian wives safe, whose husbands had turned Catholic.  The husbands were fined for having “Arian” wives.

    One of the ministers named Morsztyn at the risk of his life stayed behind in Poland with his son to minister to the scattered Socinians, and he continued in this office as late as 1668.  Wiszowaty also made his way back in the first winter to comfort the poor, the widows, and the orphans who had been unable to get away and who now flocked to him as soon as they heard of his arrival; and he repeated his visit the second winter.  A synod was even held in Poland in great secrecy in 1662, at which two ministers were appointed to look after the brethren scattered throughout the land.

    A deep thrill of horror and of sympathy ran through the more liberal Protestants of Europe over the cruelties of this exile and the sufferings of the Socinians, whose books had now for a generation or more been read and appreciated, and whose leaders were famous, in Holland and England.  In response to an appeal, aid in generous amount was therefore raised by a Remonstrant pastor named Næranus in Holland, by a member of the Church of England named Firmin, whom we shall meet again in our history, and by Socinians living in Holstein; and this was carefully distributed among the suffering brethren in Poland or in exile, wherever any could be learned of.  This distribution in Poland continued as long as five years after the banishment, but after that we have no further record of the survivors there.

    We have seen that the banishment of the Socinians from Poland was brought about by cooperation between the Catholics and the orthodox Protestants.  The latter did not realize that they were thus being used as tools to dig their own graves.  It was not long, however, before they woke up to what they had done.  With the Socinians once out of the way the Catholics soon began to increase their persecution of the other Protestants.  The Bohemian Brethren, the next weaker sect, were expelled a year after the Socinians, and by 1668 the power of Protestantism in Poland was practically crushed.  In 1716 freedom of religious worship was forbidden to all Protestants except in their older churches; and in 1733 and 1736 their most important political rights were taken from them. When after a long struggle the old rights of Dissidents were again restored in 1767, it was too late to be of much good to the orthodox Protestant cause, which has never since had more than a feeble existence in Polish lands; and of course it was forever too late for the Socinians.9


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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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