Down to the Beginning of Unitarianism in Transylvania in 1564


    If asked when and where Unitarianism was first organized, the average person would be likely to answer that it was in America, or perhaps in England, about the beginning of the nineteenth century.  He would be greatly amazed to be told that in a remote country of Europe Unitarian churches have had an unbroken history for more than three hundred and fifty years.  That country is Transylvania, and we come now to the story of the heroic struggle of churches which began there at almost the same time with the separate organization of the Minor Reformed Church in Poland (whose tragic history has occupied the six preceding chapters), and which have bravely weathered all storms of persecution and misfortune down to the present day — hence by far the oldest Unitarian churches in the world.

    Transylvania formed (until the World War) the eastern quarter of the old kingdom of Hungary, to which it bore much the same relation as Scotland to England.  It is about half as large as the state of Maine, or a quarter larger than Switzerland; hedged in on all sides by the lofty snow-capped Carpathians and other mountains, forest-covered, as the name of the country implies.  It has a great variety of grand and beautiful natural scenery, and has been called the Switzerland of Hungary.  One traveler writes that whereas other lands are beautiful in spots, Transylvania is all beauty; while another calls it a sort of earthly paradise.  It has an agreeable climate, a fertile soil, and great mineral wealth; and ever since Roman times its mines have supplied a large part of the gold of Europe.

    So much for the physical background of our story.  The history of the country has yet more to do with the development of it.  Located on the extreme frontier of western Europe, facing other civilizations, Transylvania has been in the natural path of conquest, and during sixteen centuries has been repeatedly overrun by armies.  Early in the second century Trajan conquered it for the Romans, and it thus became the Roman province of Dacia Mediterranea.  Trajan’s Column at Rome still stands to commemorate the conquest, and shows us how the inhabitants of that time looked.  Then came various hordes of barbarians invading the Roman Empire, generally striking Transylvania first of all, plundering the land, destroying its towns and houses, and killing its people: the Goths in the third and fourth century; the Huns in the fifth, led by Attila, who struck such terror into Christian Europe that he was called “the scourge of God,” sent to punish the world for its sins; after them the Burgundians, Gepidæ, Lombards, and Avars, all leaving ruin and death in their train.  Of all these it is the Huns that are of greatest interest to us, because when they retreated eastward after their defeats in France and Italy, the remnants of Attila’s horde are said to have been stranded in the foothills of eastern Transylvania, and there settled in what is now known as Szeklerland.  The reputed descendants of these, called Szeklers, form the bulk of the Unitarians, a farmer people, having special political privileges, and hence called “nobles,” a sort of peasant aristocracy, altogether a very fine stock.

    In the ninth century, under Arpad, came nearly a million Magyars, related to the Huns, and speaking the same tongue with them.  After ravaging Europe for two generations, they finally settled in Hungary, where they have lived ever since in their whitewashed villages — another fine race, fond of liberty, and with a spirit and institutions not unlike those of the English and Americans.  Most of them are Calvinists or Roman Catholics.  In the thirteenth century a new element gradually came in from the eastern shores of the Adriatic, the Wallacks, whose descendants (now known as Rumanians) speaking a modern form of the Latin tongue, now comprise over half of the population: the peasantry of the land, picturesque, ignorant, degraded, and adhering chiefly to the Greek Catholic Church.  In the thirteenth century also came another deluge of half a million Mongol Tatars, ravaging and plundering, burning and butchering, leaving three quarters of Hungary in ashes; while if their invasion was frightful, the repeated invasions of the Turks in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the bloody uprising of the Rumanians in 1848, and last of all the desolations of the World War, have been hardly less so; and all these misfortunes have been further aggravated by the frequent plagues and famines that have followed in their wake.  These afflictions have made of the survivors a heroic and self-reliant race, inured to hardship, indomitable in spirit, and devoted to freedom; as indeed they needed to be to face all the persecutions they were to suffer for their religious faith.

    Besides the Rumanians, the Szeklers, and the Magyars, of whom we have spoken, the remaining important element of the population of to-day are the “Saxons,” as they are called, all of them Lutherans in religion.  They were brought from the region of the lower Rhine in the twelfth century to settle and guard the frontier country, which repeated wars had left a wilderness;1 and in their isolation from the fatherland they still preserve little changed the language, customs, and dress of mediæval Germany.  Gypsies, Armenians, and Jews scattered here and there through the country complete the list of distinct stocks which people Transylvania, living side by side as separate as drops of oil and water, and differing from one another in race, in language, in religion, and in customs — a most interesting patch-work of people.  Amid such surroundings Unitarianism has had its longest home.

    After being for several centuries a part of the Kingdom of Hungary, the Transylvanian nobles in 1526 elected a king from among their own people, John Zapolya, and during the ten years’ war which followed they maintained their cause against Hungary by the aid of the Sultan; and in return for his protection they continued to pay him annual tribute for more than 150 years, electing their princes subject to his approval, though in other respects they had an independent state until 1690, when Transylvania was joined to Austria.  King John had for his queen, Isabella, daughter of King Sigismund I of Poland, but he died in 1540, only a few days after she had borne him a son, John Sigismund, whom the nobles elected King of Hungary soon after his father’s death.  He is notable for being the only Unitarian king in history.2  The young king was born to troubles, for there was in western Hungary also a rival king, supported in his claim by the Pope, as John was in his by the Sultan, and he looked with envious eyes upon Transylvania.  Taking advantage of John’s infancy, and of the inexperience of the Queen-mother Isabella, who was acting as regent in his stead, he kept intriguing against Transylvania in every way possible.  The result of many vicissitudes in the matter was that although John was nominally King of Hungary, with dominions extending to the Tisza (Theiss), he actually held not much more than Transylvania alone; and in 1570, as the price of peace with the Emperor Maximilian II, it was agreed at the Diet of Speyer that he should lay aside his empty title of king and his claim to the Hungarian crown, in return for the acknowledgment of Transylvania’s independence of Hungary.  He died the following year.  It is in his reign that the history of Unitarianism in Transylvania begins.

    Christianity is said to have reached Hungary even before Trajan, and the Goths in the fourth century fostered the Arianism which they professed.  At the end of the eighth century, however, the Avars were converted to Catholic Christianity under Charlemagne, and when Transylvania was conquered in 1002 by St.  Stephen, the first Christian king of Hungary, its inhabitants perforce accepted his religion.  Hungary was too far away from Rome, however, and the Hungarians were of too independent spirit, for the Roman Church to gain complete power there.  The simple, scriptural form of Christianity taught by the Albigenses and Waldenses was widely spread from the twelfth to the fourteenth century, and the reformation of the Hussites won many adherents a century later; and much persecution failed to suppress these heresies.  The soil was thus well prepared for the Protestant Reformation.

    As early as 1520 Saxon merchants returning from Germany brought Luther’s books to Transylvania, where they found many eager readers; while two monks returning from Wittenberg preached the Reformation.  Severe laws were passed to prevent the spread of the heresy, some books were seized and burnt, and two persons were put to death by John Zapolya; but wars were on hand, the laws were not much enforced, and so the Reformation spread more rapidly in Hungary than in any other land.  By 1535 all the Saxons had become Lutherans, and the Magyars and Szeklers rapidly followed, until at length only three of the magnates remained faithful to the Catholic Church, and even these attended Protestant worship.  In 1556 the Catholic priests were driven out, and the church property was confiscated or given over to the Protestants; Hungarian students went in hundreds every year to Wittenburg to prepare for the Protestant ministry, and Catholicism seemed all but extinct.  Nevertheless at the Diet of Torda in 1557 legal toleration of both religions was established when Isabella decreed, ‘in order that each might hold the faith which he wished, with the new rites as well as with the old, that this should be permitted him at his own free will.’  Save for the similar decree in the Grisons in 1526,3 this was the first law in Christian Europe guaranteeing equal liberty to both religions.4  The principle of full toleration to all religions was slow in developing, and was not realized until very long afterwards.

    At this same Diet of Torda it was decided to establish a national synod where the Protestant ministers might soberly discuss the serious differences of view which were already arising among them about the Lord’s Supper.  This had already long been the subject of fierce controversy between Lutherans and Calvinists elsewhere, the Lutherans holding that the body and blood of Christ are present in the bread and wine, while the Swiss reformers held that these are only symbols.  Calvin’s doctrine had come into Hungary in 1550, and was rapidly infecting the Lutheran Protestants there, and Calvinistic churches were now being formed.  In the end most of the Magyars and Szeklers became Calvinists, while the Saxons remained Lutherans; but the separation was preceded by some years of angry dispute.  It is in one of the earliest of these discussions that we first hear, in 1556, of one Francis David (of whom we shall soon hear a great deal as the hero of this part of our story) taking part on the Lutheran side; and he was for some time the leader of the opposition to Calvinism among the Hungarian Protestants.  The king became concerned lest the violent quarrels which were distracting the Church should also disturb the peace of the state, and he had synods called to see whether harmony could not be restored; but nothing was accomplished.  The Diet of Torda therefore in 1563 renewed and confirmed its earlier decree of toleration, ordering “that each may embrace the religion that he prefers, without any compulsion, and may be free to support preachers of his own faith, and in the use of the sacraments, and that neither party must do injury or violence to the other.”  Seeing that all other efforts proved vain, the king at length settled the matter at the synod of Nagy Enyed the next year, by ordering the parties to separate into two distinct churches, each with its own superintendent or bishop.  Transylvania thus took another step toward religious toleration, having now three recognized churches, the Catholic, the Lutheran, and the Reformed.

    While these things were going on, seeds of Unitarianism were also beginning to sprout.  It might almost be said that the Hungarians had been predisposed to that doctrine by their history.  As we have already seen, Arian Christianity flourished here under the Gothic occupation.  In 351 also Photinus, Bishop of Sirmium (Mitrovicz) on the Save, was condemned as a heretic and banished for holding that Christ’s nature was essentially human.  His heresy long survived him in those parts, and Unitarians have often been called Photinians.  Arianism existed more or less widely spread as late as the formal conversion of the Hungarians to orthodox Christianity in 1002; and even after that it fused with the faith of the Albigenses and Waldenses until the fifteenth century, and was widely spread among the people.  Early in the Reformation period Anabaptists had also been here and prepared the way, and the writings of Servetus had been read and his doctrines had gained scattered followers, so that the first Protestant synod in Hungary had found it necessary as early as 1545 to condemn opponents of the Trinity.  The first prophet of Unitarianism in Hungary was one Thomas Aran, who in 1558 wrote a clear and bold book denying the Trinity, and in 1561 began to preach his doctrine at Debreczen, the very Geneva of Hungarian Calvinism.  The Calvinist preacher there, Peter Melius, was aroused like a Hungarian Calvin to put down the heresy.  A public discussion was arranged, and the question was debated for four days; when such pressure was put upon Aran by the civil power that he confessed defeat and retracted, though he later professed Unitarianism again in Transylvania.  His teachings, however, were discussed in various synods, and had spread so far that Melius felt obliged to publish a book against them.  Not a few churches adopted them, both in the northern counties where be had taught and in the great plain of Lower Hungary.

    It was in Transylvania, however, that Unitarianism had its most important influence.  The real forerunner of Unitarianism here was Stancaro.  He had came to Transylvania in 1553, and for five years he persistently advocated the same views of the work of Christ which he spread a little later in Poland.5  He was bitterly opposed, by David and others, and at length was expelled and went to Poland, where we have already noted his career.  Although he did not himself deny the Trinity or the deity of Christ, the result of his teaching was in both countries the same, to pave the way for others to deny them.  Unitarian doctrines were little likely, however, to make much headway against orthodox opposition unless they could have the backing and leadership of some person of considerable influence.  Such a leader now came upon the scene in the person of Biandrata, who may be credited with successfully introducing Unitarianism into Transylvania.  We have already met him in Switzerland, and in Poland.6  In 1554, when he was court physician to Queen Bona of Poland, she had sent him to Transylvania to attend her daughter, the young Queen Isabella, with her little son, the young Prince John Sigismund; and he had then lived at the Transylvanian court for eight years.  It was but natural, therefore, that when the young king lay dangerously ill in 1563 he should send for the able physician of his boyhood.  Biandrata was glad enough to escape from a position in Poland which Calvin’s efforts against him had made disagreeable and might make dangerous, and to accept the high post of court physician to the King of Transylvania.7

    Until his sixteenth year John Sigismund’s education had been under Catholic influences, but he had now for several years supported the Reformation as a Lutheran.  He had already driven out the priests and monks from the land; and now that he was hard beset by foes in war and by conspiracies which his enemies had stirred up against him at home, he sought consolation in religion, and interested himself seriously in the further reform of it.  He was now twenty-three, and the Italian officer who commanded his body guard wrote home to his sovereign, the Grand-Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, giving a most interesting and admiring sketch, which is still extant.  Though of slight physique, he says, and not strong of health, the king was skillful in all manly sports.  He was highly intelligent, and spoke eight languages; of refined tastes and manners, and with a charming personality; brave, industrious, generous, and frank, distinguished for his personal virtues, and devoted to religion.  His residence was at Gyulafehervar,8 which thus becomes an important place in our history.

    Biandrata, on the other hand, was now in the prime of life, and by his adventurous history, his handsome appearance, his courtly manners, and his eloquence he made a marked impression upon the king and at court, where he soon became the leading figure.  Within a year he had won the confidence of the king to such a degree as to be made his private counsellor, and was presently rewarded by the handsome gift of three villages, and given the privileges of a noble; though just because of his great influence with the king he was feared, rather than popular, at court.  He lost none of his interest in the reform of theology, but still kept in communication with the brethren in Poland; and finding the king also deeply interested in religion he eagerly seconded and guided his impulses for further reformation, proceeding cautiously, and not at first disclosing how far he had himself gone.  They must have talked much of theology from the first, for within a few months, when the controversy over the Lord’s Supper9 was at its critical stage in 1564, the king sent ‘his most excellent Giorgio Biandrata, his physician, an eminent man, learned and uncommonly well versed in the Scriptures,’ to the general synod at Nagy Enyed at which the Calvinists were finally separated from the Lutherans, with full power and authority to take part in the discussion and if possible settle the controversy.  Biandrata here of course took the side of progress and supported the Calvinists, and here too he discovered in David, who was the leader on the Calvinist side of the debate, a man admirably suited to promote in Transylvania the further reform in which he had himself taken a part in Poland.  As David was soon to become the great leader of Unitarianism in Transylvania, its hero, martyr, and idol, we must here turn aside from our narrative to see who and what he was.


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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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