Francis Dávid and the Rise of Unitarianism in Transylvania, 15641569


    Francis Dávid1 was born at Kolozsvar (Klausenburg), the capital of Transylvania, about 1510, and was thus a close contemporary of Calvin and Servetus, and a few years older than Biandrata.  He was the son of a shoemaker, and perhaps a Saxon, though he spoke and wrote both German and Hungarian, as well as Latin, with perfect fluency.  He was doubtless first educated at the school of the Franciscan monks at Kolozsvar, and later went to the cathedral school at Gyulafehervar, where he showed himself a brilliant student, and made influential acquaintances.  After being in the service of the church here for a time, be was sent by a wealthy friend to the University of Wittenberg, where many Catholic students still went in spite of Luther’s heresy centering there.  He may also have studied at Padua.  After two or three years he returned home in 1551 an accomplished scholar and became rector of a Catholic school at Besztercze for two years, and was then for two years more parish priest of a large village in the same county.  Many of the Catholic clergy of the vicinity were then accepting the doctrines of the Reformation.  Dávid joined them, gave up his priesthood, and became a Lutheran.  His reputation was already such that three of the most important Protestant churches in the country called him to their service.  He accepted the call to his old home at Kolozsvar, where he spent the remaining twenty-four years of his life, in a position of the greatest influence, and idolized by his people.

    Dávid’s rise was now rapid.  He seems to have been made rector of the Lutheran school in 1555, and chief minister of the largest church the following year; while by 1557, having already won a great reputation by his brilliant debates against Stancaro and the Calvinists,2 and thus come to be recognized as the leader of the Reformation in Transylvania, he was bishop (or superintendent) of the Hungarian Lutherans.   He was, however, by nature, of an open mind, and after debating against the Calvinist view of the Lord’s Supper for several years, he was at length won over to it by its chief defender, Melius, and accordingly resigned his office of bishop in 1559.  Though the Lutherans expelled him from their synod in 1560, he still kept his pastorate, and tried to the very end to prevent a split in the church.  He took an active part in the debates that occupied every synod, and now came to be regarded the leader of the Calvinists as he had formerly been that of the Lutherans.  His persuasive eloquence won the king and many of the magnates to the new view, and when the two churches were separated in 1564 it was but natural that Biandrata should have used his powerful influence to have another removed and Dávid appointed in his stead, first as court preacher, and then as bishop — this second time as bishop of the new Reformed Church in Transylvania.

    Dávid was now at the very summit of his powers, the most eloquent and famous preacher and the ablest public debater in Transylvania; so well versed in Scripture that he seemed to have the whole Bible at his tongue’s end, while in debating a point of doctrine he would quote texts and compare passages with a readiness that often put his opponents to confusion.  Having Dávid at court, Biandrata now became intimate with him, and confided to him his hopes of a further reformation of the doctrines of the Church.  Biandrata, taught by his past experiences in Italy, Switzerland, and Poland, was cautious and moved slowly.  Dávid was bold and fearless.  In that very year, in the king’s presence at the Diet of Segesvar, he openly spoke against the Trinity; and the king, instead of objecting, only smiled.  In 1566 Dávid found one of the professors in the Kolozsvar school teaching the old doctrine about the Trinity, and ventured to correct him.  The teacher, angered, publicly charged Dávid with heresy.  Dávid had him removed, and then began carefully and systematically to preach the unity of God from his Kolozsvar pulpit.  The teacher went to Hungary and joined Melius who, with the spirit of a new Athanasius, made himself the champion of orthodoxy, and from Calvin and Beza brought the king warnings against Biandrata, and asked that a synod be called to debate the matter.

    Prolonged and heated controversy followed, and from now on for nearly five years there were almost every month debates over the doctrine of the Trinity at synod, Diet, or public debate.  Many of these discussions took the shape of formal disputations, in which each side appointed its best debaters to present and defend carefully framed theses and antitheses, while stenographic reports were taken by the secretaries.  At several of these the king himself presided and occasionally took part, while the clergy and the nobles from far and near would be present in large numbers.  The records would then be published on a press which the king had already provided for Biandrata and Dávid to use in their work of reformation, and these became valuable documents for propaganda throughout the whole country; for people at that time were as keenly interested in these themes as they can now be in the most burning political questions.

    Public discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity began in Transylvania at the national synod held at Gyulafehervar, and thence adjourned to Torda, early in 1566.  The ministers present, under the leadership of Biandrata and Dávid, after accepting the Apostles’ Creed, adopted a statement of their belief on the Trinity which gave it a Unitarian interpretation, and rejected the Athanasian doctrine as untenable.  At another synod a few weeks later they expressed their belief more fully and carefully, and soon afterwards they published a catechism.  Their purpose, like that of Servetus and the Polish Brethren, seems to have been simply to restore the doctrine of the New Testament and the primitive Church, as a basis on which all Christians might unite.

    Melius, who had by now become bishop of the Reformed Church in Hungary, had thus far been disputing on hostile territory, where the liberals were in the majority; the next year he therefore called a synod at Debreczen in his own district, and got some strongly orthodox propositions adopted, while the Helvetic Confession just adopted in Switzerland as a bar to further heresy there3 was signed by his ministers.  In Transylvania meanwhile the press was busy on the other side, especially with a book On the True and the False Knowledge of the One God, which sought, among other things, to ridicule the absurdities of the doctrine of the Trinity by means of coarse pictures, and therefore greatly angered the orthodox, while it made an indelible impression upon the minds of the common people.  In his dedication of this book to the king, Dávid makes a plea for toleration which is far in advance of his age: “There is no greater piece of folly than to try to exercise power over conscience and soul, both of which are subject only to their Creator.”  This spirit found sympathy with the king, and soon afterwards, at a Diet at Torda in January, 1568, where Dávid made an eloquent plea for religious toleration, the decrees of 1557 and 15634 were renewed and strengthened.  The king decreed “that preachers shall be allowed to preach the Gospel everywhere, each according to his own understanding of it.  If the community wish to accept such preaching, well and good; if not, they shall not be compelled, but shall be allowed to keep the preachers they prefer.  No one shall be made to suffer on account of his religion, since faith is the gift of God.”  This is the Magna Charta of religion in Transylvania, and it deserves to be remembered as a golden date in Unitarian history, for it saved the Unitarian faith from being crushed out there as it was in other lands.  In the generation in which it was passed, the Inquisition was doing its worst to crush Protestantism in Spain and Italy, Alva was putting Protestants to death by the thousands in the Netherlands, and the massacre of St. Bartholomew with its 20,000 or 30,000 victims in France was yet four years in the future; while deniers of the Trinity were still to be burned alive in England for more than forty years.  It long stood as the most advanced step in toleration yet taken in Europe; and the king who passed this enlightened law was but twenty-eight years old.

    Melius, displeased with the way things were running, now sought to stem the tide by inviting the Transylvanian ministers to a joint debate at Debreczen in Hungary, where everything was strongly orthodox; but as this was out of the jurisdiction of King John, so that they could not enjoy the protection of his tolerant laws, and as a few weeks before an antitrinitarian minister had been seized in that vicinity and imprisoned without trial, Biandrata suspected a plot, and would not let the invitation be accepted.  Instead, the king, wishing to see the debated questions settled, and to quiet the disturbances that were arising out of them, summoned a general synod of the ministers of both Hungary and Transylvania to meet in his own palace at Gyulafehervar, to hear a formal debate on the subject.  Five debaters, led by Biandrata and Dávid, represented the Unitarian side, while on the side of the Calvinists were six speakers, headed by their bishop, Melius.  It was the greatest debate in the whole history of Unitarianism.  It took place at Gyualafehervar in the great ball of the palace before the king, the whole court, and a great throng of ministers and nobles, who occasionally enlivened the proceedings by their questions or comments.  The debate began on March 8, 1568, at five o’clock in the morning, with solemn prayers on each side; it was conducted in Latin, and lasted ten full days.  Melius appealed to the authority of the Bible, the creeds, the Fathers, and the orthodox theologians; Dávid, to the Bible alone.  The discussion began with some heat, which did not much cool off as it went on.  On the ninth day the Calvinists asked to be excused from listening further.  The king intimated that this would he confessing defeat, and they remained; but as nothing was being accomplished to bring the parties to agree (how could it ever have been really expected?) the king ended the debate the next day, recommending that the ministers give themselves to prayer, seek harmony, and refrain from mutual abuse as unbecoming in them.

    The debate was generally regarded as a complete victory for the Unitarians, whose side the king evidently favored; but the Calvinist historian’s comment is that it ended without any profit to the Church of Christ, which was perhaps his way of stating the same thing.  In the course of the debate Biandrata showed himself a poor debater, and he did not enter public discussion again; but Dávid, who opened and closed the debate, and was ready with a convincing answer to every question or objection, covered himself with glory.  He now returned home to Kolozsvar.  The news of his triumph had preceded him.  The streets were crowded to receive him.  Without waiting for him to get to the church, the people made him mount a large boulder at a street corner (it is still preserved by the Unitarians of Kolozsvar as a sacred relic) and speak to them of his victorious new doctrine.  They received his word with the greatest enthusiasm, and after a time they took him on their shoulders and carried him to the great church in the square, where he went on with his sermon.  His eloquence was so persuasive that on that day, so the tradition runs, the whole population of Kolozsvar accepted the Unitarian faith.5  Not quite the whole, however; for the Lutheran Saxons of Kolozsvar were so disgusted with this proceeding that they left the city forthwith, and had it removed from the number of their seven fortified towns which had for centuries enjoyed special privileges granted to the Saxons.6  From now on for many years Kolozsvar was practically a Unitarian city, all its churches and schools were Unitarian, and all the members of the city Council and the higher officials were Unitarians.  In this year, 1568, Dávid for the third time became bishop, this time of the Unitarian churches.

    Being thus defeated in Transylvania, the Calvinists now appealed to the judgment of the professors in the German universities, who were considered the highest authorities in Protestant Europe on questions of theology.  Of course the replies were in their favor, for all Germany was orthodox; and several of the professors wrote books against Dávid and Biandrata, and tried to stir up feeling against them.  They also began somewhat to rally their forces in Transylvania; while in Hungary, all through the year 1568, they kept holding synods in different districts, confirming the orthodox doctrine and condemning the Antitrinitarians.  Disregarding the king’s decree of tolerance, they persecuted and drove out ministers holding Unitarian views, if they would not deny their faith, and forbade them to speak in their own defense, lest they thus make more converts to their views.

    Many, however, wished that a discussion might be held in the Hungarian language, which they could all understand.  Dávid therefore determined to carry the war into the enemy’s country, and with the king’s sanction called another synod to meet at Nagyvarad (Grosswardein) October 10, 1569.  The orthodox clergy denied his right to summon them to a synod, having in Melius a bishop of their own, and at first were unwilling to attend, though at length they yielded.  The conditions of the debate were carefully drawn, and officers appointed as usual.  Dávid presented a statement of his faith and of the propositions he stood ready to defend.  His opponents offered counter-arguments, and presented propositions of their own, signed by sixty ministers.  Gaspar Bekes presided, the most powerful magnate in the kingdom, and the king’s most intimate councillor.  The king and his court were present with many generals and magnates, and the leading clergy from both Transylvania and Hungary; and he himself frequently took part in the discussion. The attendance was larger than even at Gyulafehervar.  There were nine disputants on each side, though the debate was mainly between Dávid and Melius, and was carried on with the greatest intensity.  On one occasion Melius attacked Dávid with such violence that the king himself rebuked him, and suggested that if the orthodox ministers did not believe in freedom of conscience they had better remove to some other country.  “We wish that in our dominions,” said he, “there be freedom of conscience; for we know that faith is the gift of God, and that one’s conscience can not be forced.”  Dávid pleaded eloquently for religious liberty.  After six days the king saw that nothing further could be gained, and having charged the orthodox with evading the real issue he closed the debate.  He, Bekes, the court, and the majority of the company were won to Dávid’s views, and henceforth the king clearly accepted the Unitarian faith.  The orthodox minority contented themselves with drawing up and signing a confession of faith of their own, condemning Dávid and his views.  This was the decisive debate in the controversy over the Trinity, and it clinched the victory won at Gyulafehervar two years before.

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