The Socinians in Exile, 16601803


    The history of religious persecution has scarcely a more pathetic and tragic chapter than that of the Socinian exiles from Poland.  The sufferings of the Pilgrim Fathers are nothing in comparison to it.  Many, as we have seen, were obliged to remain behind in Poland, though of these some doubtless managed to remove later.  The rest must have been gradually absorbed in the other churches, or else have died off within a generation.  Those that went into exile scattered in every direction, but we are able to trace six distinct colonies of them who held together for a longer or shorter time, in Transylvania, Silesia, the Rhine Palatinate, Holstein, Brandenburg, and Prussia, not to mention Holland, whither many from these various colonies eventually went, there at length to mingle with the liberal Dutch churches, in which they found a hospitable home.

    The largest migration sought to find a new home in Transylvania where, as we shall see in the next division of this history, there had long been well organized churches of their own faith, with which they had maintained friendly if not intimate relations for nearly a century.  Their petition to be received into that country, however, was for some reason at first denied by the prince then ruling.  They therefore separated into two divisions and for a time found welcome with two Protestant nobles of Hungary.  One of these divisions went to Kesmark in Szepes (Zips) County and was hospitably received by Count Stephen Thököly, who had a ready rebuke for an English clergyman who reproached him for thus sheltering heretics.  It was here that Wiszowaty made the headquarters from which he returned for two winters to comfort the faithful remaining in Poland.  What at last became of this colony does not appear, but as we hear little further of them, it is probable that they soon broke up, some of them following Wiszowaty to Silesia, while most of the rest proceeded before long to join their brethren in Transylvania.

    The other division set out to seek the protection of Prince Francis Rhedei at Huszt in Marmaros County.  They were a wretched company of more than 500, with a train of 300 wagons bearing such few household possessions as they could take with them. Hardly had they crossed the Carpathians into Hungary when they were set upon by a band of freebooting Hungarian soldiers known in the country as “the Devil’s fiends,” who were supposed to have been secretly informed and incited to the act from Poland.  They were plundered of their possessions, their provisions, and even the clothes they wore, and were maltreated in every way.  The larger part of them, staggered by this new calamity, turned back in despair to Poland and professed the Catholic faith, or else sought refuge in Prussia.  The rest, destitute and half naked, but hardened to dangers, pushed on toward their destination.  After spending the winter at Huszt, about 200 of them comprising some thirty families went on the next year, and at length reached the metropolis of Unitarianism at Kolozsvar.  The brethren there had just been overrun by Turks and Tatars in the war then raging, and had themselves been plundered of nearly all that they had; but when they heard of the sad plight of their brethren from Poland, they sent out wagons to meet them, supplied them with food and clothing, and gave them shelter.  Yet here, in a strange and severe climate, and weakened by hardship and exposure, they were almost immediately attacked by the plague, and barely thirty of them survived it.1  A new prince had now come to the throne, Michael Apaffi I, and when he offered them the shelter and protection which no other sovereign in Christian Europe would grant them, they made arrangements for permanent settlement in the country, after which others from Poland doubtless joined them.  They were granted the rights of citizenship, and a church of their own was set aside for them to worship in; but they were long in extreme destitution, and even after fifty years they were still obliged to appeal to their more prosperous brethren in other lands for aid in supporting their church, their school, and the poor.  Yet their numbers gradually increased, so that in 1707 they sent out colonies to other parts of the country, and for some time they had in all four churches.  At about this time some of them planned to return to Poland, and funds were raised to assist them in doing so; but when the venture was made in 1711, the bare chimneys of their burned homes, and the religious hatred with which they were received by the inhabitants, discouraged them so much that the attempt was given up.

    The Polish Socinians in Transylvania at length suffered the inevitable fate of any small colony in a strange land.  The original exiles died, their children intermarried with the Transylvanians and became scattered, and thus they gradually forgot their mother tongue and became mingled with the surrounding population. As long as it was possible, they maintained worship in the Polish language and had Polish ministers; but it became more and more difficult to secure ministers, and congregations gradually dwindled.  The last Polish preacher at Kolozsvar died in 1792; and his congregation had already united with the Hungarian Unitarian Church there eight years before.  The other three churches had become extinct considerably earlier.  The descendants of the Polish exiles were not ungrateful to their Unitarian friends.  Many of them rose to high position in public life and acquired wealth; and one of them named Augustinowics dying in 1837 left the Unitarian church a bequest of 100,000 florins, which long amounted to more than all the rest of the funds of the church combined.

    A second company of exiles crossed over the western border of Poland into Silesia, where scattered Socinians had long lived, from among whom had come several well-known ministers to the Polish churches, and where yet more had lately settled as refugees before Rakoczy’s invasion in 1657.  Many were received under the protection of the Queen of Poland in her principalities of Oppeln and Ratibor where she shielded them from the attacks of the Catholic clergy; but as they were widely scattered they were able to form no congregation, and we hear no more of them.

    A considerable number, however, including some of the most distinguished nobles and ministers, sought refuge just over the border at Kreuzburg, where they hoped to find toleration among Protestants who were themselves being threatened with persecution for their faith.  They did not expect to settle here permanently, though they hoped to have indulgence from the Duke of Brieg, who was of the Reformed faith, until they could arrange their affairs in Poland, provide for the brethren left behind them, and make plans for a new home, if perchance there were no turn of fortune in their favor.  Instead they were ordered to leave within three days.  Some of them went on and thus disappear from our view.  The rest petitioned the Duke for leave to stay a few days longer, and when this leave had expired it was extended for three months more, on condition of their not carrying on any propaganda or holding public worship.  By the time this period had elapsed, the prejudice against them had evidently subsided, and they were quietly tolerated and allowed to meet privately for worship in their own homes.  Publicly they worshiped with the other Protestants.  The Bohemian Brethren had tried hard to persuade the Duke not to let them stay, but the Lutheran ministers and citizens were in the main kind to them; and while they were not allowed to bury their dead in the Protestant cemetery, they were assigned a small one of their own.  Although most of them were nobles, they were nearly all left poor, and knowing no trade, and being ignorant of the language of the country, they found the greatest difficulty in making a bare living.  In this extremity the gifts of money received from Holland and England2 were like manna from heaven; and the letter which twenty-six of them signed making acknowledgment of these gifts, and relating the story of their banishment and their present circumstances, is one of the most interesting documents in their whole history.

    Kreuzburg was the most convenient center where the exiles might gather from the various quarters to which they had scattered.  They therefore continued to hold their synods there, to which delegates came from Transylvania, Prussia, Brandenburg, and Holland, so that Kreuzburg became for the time a sort of capital for Socinianism, as Rakow had once been.  After providing for their immediate necessities, the first care of the exiles here was for the brethren still remaining in Poland.  During eight years they appointed ministers to return secretly to visit them and confirm them in their faith. They provided for the training of young ministers, and for the publication of controversial works and commentaries in support of their doctrines.  They sent agents in various directions to see if a place could be found where they might settle; and these efforts proved more or less successful, so that by 1669 only three noble families and a few commoners remained of the Kreuzburg company.  Most of them seem to have joined the exiles in Prussia, though a few scattered about in Silesia, to whom the brethren in Prussia for the next ten years sent back a minister each year to preach and administer the Lord’s Supper.  The last of these itinerant missionaries died while on his journey to them in 1680.

    Another and smaller company of exiles settled in the Rhine Palatinate.  It has been seen in a previous chapter that early in the Reformation the antitrinitarian Anabaptists were mercilessly persecuted in various parts of Protestant Germany;3 and from that time on the German princes, strongly Lutheran in faith, had never shown the least tolerance to those that denied the doctrine of the Trinity.  There had been repeated cases of expulsion of students in various German universities, or even of imprisonment or banishment, for being unsound on this point; various princes had issued decrees against deniers of the Trinity; and the few ministers who had ventured to follow Servetus or Socinus suffered imprisonment or exile, most of them taking refuge among the Socinians in Poland or the Unitarians in Transylvania.  As early as about 1570 there had been a little group of these in the Palatinate itself, of whom one, Adam Neuser, had been imprisoned for some time at Heidelberg, and another, Johannes Sylvanus, had been put to death, while yet others were banished, by the zealous Elector Frederick III, “the pious.”

    His great-great-grandson, the Elector Karl Ludwig, however, was more tolerant.  Moravian Anabaptists had already built a church under his protection, and a number of Socinian refugees bringing their minister with them had already been kindly received.  A Polish Socinian knight of great influence also helped secure favor for his brethren; and as the Elector was using every means to attract settlers to rebuild his city of Mannheim, long wasted by wars, he took pity on the exiles and granted them refuge there.

    The synod at Kreuzburg in 1663 sent two of its best-known ministers, Wiszowaty and Stegmann, to prepare the way, and a company of exiles soon followed.  They lived there three years, happy under the Elector’s protection.  They not only held their customary religious services for their own members in their private houses, and occasionally ministered to other exiles farther down the Rhine at Wied; but they also zealously tried to spread their faith among others by means of personal conversations and the circulation of their books.  The Elector himself grew deeply interested in their views, and had many religious conversations with Wiszowaty; but when his subjects began to show the infection of heresy, the Lutheran clergy took notice and had the Socinians baled into court at Heidelberg, where they were forbidden henceforth to discuss religion with any one, or to circulate their books.  This restriction at once took away half of what made life there seem worth living for them; a war broke out with Lorraine; and a visitation of the plague attacked a great part of the inhabitants.  They therefore decided to emigrate. Some of them may have returned to Silesia or removed to Prussia, but most went with Wiszowaty to Holland where he had formerly studied and had many warm friends among the Dutch, where many of the brethren already were, and where we shall soon meet them again.

    A fourth band of exiles found a brief refuge in the duchy of Holstein.  Stanislaw Lubieniecki, a famous Socinian courtier and scholar, had intimate relations with various courts in Europe.4  He had followed in the train of the King of Sweden when the latter left Krakow; and when he at last saw no hope of being permitted to return home, he went to Copenhagen, hoping to find a place of refuge for the exiles in the realm of King Frederick III of Denmark.  Here he so much won the regard of the king that the apprehension of the Lutheran theologians at court was aroused lest the king, with whom he often talked on religion, should become an “Arian.”  He at first secured royal permission for the exiles to settle at Altona; but later, upon request of the secret synod held in Poland in 1662, he sought a place of settlement for them at Friedrichstadt, where Remonstrant and Mennonite refugees from Holland, and Quakers from England, had been received and tolerated.  He obtained permission from the local government for the exiles to settle there with full enjoyment of civil and religious rights, and to hold religious worship in private houses after their custom.  He then sent word to the brethren living on the borders of Poland, and incurred very large expense to help them remove that same year (1662) to their new home, where they established a congregation with their own minister, and sought, though with no success, to effect a union with the Mennonites or the Remonstrants who were living there as religious refugees like themselves.

    Unfortunately permission to settle had not also been obtained from Christian Albert, the ruling Duke of Holstein, and it was not long before he was persuaded by the Lutheran superintendent to command them to leave his territories.  They therefore went on to Holland, where many of their brethren were now gathering from different quarters.  Lubieniecki took up his residence at Hamburg, where he held important diplomatic offices, and incidentally made use of his opportunities with people in high station to interest them in his religious views.  After he had lived there several years, however, the clergy secured his banishment from the city on the ground that he had corrupted the religious faith of a Lutheran divinity student; though before the sentence could be carried out, he died of poison in suspicious circumstances.  Even then the clergy used all their influence to prevent the burial of his body in the church at Altona, and having failed in this they still prevented the usual funeral honors from being paid.

    A fifth group of exiles established themselves under the rule of the Great Elector Frederick William in the Mark of Brandenburg, and formed churches at several places not far from Frankfurt on the Oder, having for their last settled minister Samuel Crellius, member of one of the most famous families of Socinian scholars and preachers.   Yet nothing could save them from succumbing to their environment.  In a generation or two their descendants were speaking only German.  Their numbers grew steadily fewer.  In 1718 only some twenty-five adult males remained, and in 1725 Crellius gave up his charge.  After this the members were annually visited for some time by a minister from the churches in Prussia, who preached and administered the sacraments to the survivors; but by 1758 they had completely vanished.  How seriously these exiled Socinians took their religion is illustrated by the letter which two brothers Widawski, officers in the Prussian army, wrote to Crellius in 1717, asking whether, being far from any church of their own faith, they might partake of the Lord’s Supper in the Reformed Church.

    Crellius went from Brandenburg to England, where he formed the acquaintance of numerous liberal divines in the English Church, and thence to Holland, where he died in 1747.  He left two sons, Stephen and Joseph, of whom it is related that when they were studying at a gymnasium in Berlin they were told that they might stay there no longer unless they would join the Reformed Church, since otherwise the gymnasium would get a bad reputation.  They did not yield to the demand.  They later emigrated to America among the first settlers of the colony of Georgia, where the former became a justice of the peace, and the latter a planter.  They are the only Polish Socinians known to have come to America.

    The last country in which the Socinians tried to establish a new home was the duchy of Prussia (now East Prussia), which like Brandenburg was governed by the Great Elector.  The prevailing religion here was Lutheran, though the Elector himself was Reformed, and disposed to be tolerant.  When he came into power in 1640 he appointed as governor of the province his relative Prince Boguslaw Radziwill, who in the war with Sweden had helped to make Prussia independent of Poland.  One of his ancestors had given his powerful protection to the early Antitrinitarians in Lithuania, where he had himself enjoyed close relations with the Socinians; while his cousin Janus had defended them at the Diet of Warsaw in 1638 in the debate over the destruction of Rakow.5  The governor was therefore disposed to protect the Socinians to the limit of his power, so that many of them came to Prussia in 1660, chiefly from Lithuania which lay just over the border.  He made one of them his secretary, and had others in positions of influence in his court at Königsberg; while the Elector also had several of them among his councilors. With such powerful friends at court, many of the exiles sought refuge in various parts of Masuria, hoping to be allowed to live there quietly under the governor’s protection; and several of them acquired large estates there on which the brethren might live around them in villages in the old Polish fashion, and establish congregations for worship.  Stragglers thus kept arriving for several years from Poland or from the other exile colonies.

    No sooner had the exiles arrived, however, than the Lutheran clergy began incessantly to work for the banishment of these “Arians.”  They got edicts to this effect passed against them, and the right of holding public worship was denied them.  Meanwhile they must have had some assurance from friends at court that though decrees might be passed to pacify the Lutherans, the governor would be slow to execute them; for in 1662 they organized a church at Konsinowo (Andreaswalde), and later one at Rudawki (Rutow).  They also sent delegates to synods at Kolozsvar and Kreuzburg, held synods of their own, received aid for their poor from their friends in Holland and England, and sent aid to the exiles at Kolozsvar.  Nevertheless the fear of banishment constantly hung like a sword of Damocles over their heads, for it could never be predicted when the Lutherans might bring upon the Elector pressure too great for him to resist.  To forestall such a fate the governor’s secretary, Przypkowski, addressed to the Elector in 1666 an eloquent defense of those so unjustly persecuted (Apologia Afflictæ Innocentiæ), in which he corrected common misstatements as to their doctrines, showed how peaceable and inoffensive they were, and pointed to the examples of toleration shown them in Transylvania, Silesia, the Palatinate, and Holland.  The edict was not withdrawn, but the Elector connived at their staying a while longer.  Not long afterwards they even established a congregation with a minister at Königsberg; and they presented to the Elector a confession of their faith, carefully based on Scripture throughout, free from controversy, and calculated to soften prejudice against them.

    Their friend the governor died in 1669, and the Lutherans thereupon obtained another edict from the Elector denying them further toleration, but again they appealed to his sympathy, mercy, and sense of justice; and while the orthodox kept urging that the decree be enforced, he on his part recommended to his Council to be mild.  Feeling that they were in imminent danger, however, the Socinians now sought the intercession of the King of Poland, who wrote urgent letters to the Elector, the new governor, and the Ministers of State, pleading the distinguished ancestry of the exiles, and asking toleration for them as former subjects of Poland.

    This appeal was effective, and from now on the Elector strove to protect the Socinians.  They had indeed to take care not to arouse the Lutherans by doing anything to spread their faith, as by holding public services, engaging in religious discussions, or circulating their books; but within these limits they now went on for more than a hundred years leading a quiet, normal church life.  They held regular synods, kept in touch with the exiles in other lands sent their young ministers to Holland for training, and maintained their traditional standards of morals and piety.  Now and then they had to be admonished not to engage in propaganda, but for the most part they were no longer seriously molested.

    They built a church and school at Konsinowo in 1721, and for a time they grew bolder; and their influence began to spread so much that the Lutheran clergy became alarmed, and public worship was again forbidden in 1730.  However it might be delayed, the inevitable fate of a weak minority surrounded by a people of another faith could not be finally escaped.  It was to avoid just such a fate in Holland that the Pilgrims emigrated from there to America.  Their number steadily declined.  In the course of time some died.  Some removed to Holland or England, Transylvania or Poland.  Some married Lutheran or Reformed wives, and their children were brought up in another faith.  They continued to hold their worship in Polish, but at length for their children they had to use a German catechism along with their Polish one.  They were debarred from public office, public honors, privileges, and the professions; they could not get permanent title to property or make profitable investments.  By 1750 they had lost connection with the brethren in Transylvania, and the smaller of their two little churches became extinct with the death of its minister in 1752.  When the congregation at Konsinowo wished a few years later to build a new church, they were long delayed by litigation over the property.  When in 1776 they at length got leave from King Frederick the Great to build, with full freedom of public worship granted, they had grown so few and poor that after twelve years only some materials had been collected, and it is doubtful whether the new church was ever built at all.  For in 1767 nominal religious freedom had been restored in Poland, and it is more than likely that some of the Socinians then returned to their ancestral home.  Their last minister, Schlichting, died about 1803, and the surviving members sold and divided the church property in 1811.  Thus expired the last Socinian church in history.

    Individual Socinians still continued to live in Prussia, holding true to the faith of their fathers, and some of them holding responsible public offices.   The last recorded sentiment of any of them has a surprisingly modern sound: “that true religion consists not in name or form, but in uprightness of life.”   Two aged Socinians were still reported in the religious statistics of Prussia for 1838, a Schlichting and a Morsztyn, and the last survivor died in 1852.  Long before that date, however, the free faith for which the Socinians of Poland had gone through over two centuries of persecution at home or in exile, had won fuller freedom and made greater conquests, under happier conditions, in England and America than they perhaps ever dreamed.  There we shall follow the story a little later.  Meantime we have to turn to a land of considerable religious freedom, which served as a sort of bridge over which Socinianism was to pass from Poland to England.  We must trace the little known history of Socinianism in Holland.


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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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