Unitarianism in Transylvania, Until the Death of Francis Dávid, 1569–1579


   The churches accepting Dávid's views had now definitely separated from those of the orthodox faith, although it does not appear precisely when or precisely how the division was finally effected. They had thus far no distinctive name of their own. For a time the ministers signed themselves "ministers of the Evangelical profession"; in laws of 1576 they are mentioned as "those holding the religion of Francis Dávid"; and as late as 1577 a vote of the Diet of Torda refers to them merely as "of the other religion"; while since the center of their power was at Kolozsvar, the churches and their bishop were also long spoken of as "of the Kolozsvar Confession." There is some reason to think that in the debate between Dávid and Melius the name Unitarian was already applied to the party of Dávid, though it is not found in records until 1600, and it did not become the authorized designation of the Church until 1638. The guess of a Calvinist historian writing in the middle of the eighteenth century, that the name was derived from a union between the four religions of Transylvania in 1568, though it has often been quoted as authentic, must be dismissed as incorrect. The name is undoubtedly derived from Unitarians' belief in the unity of God, as the name Trinitarian was supposed to be derived from belief in the Trinity. Catholic writers of the period, however, commonly called the Unitarians Trinitarians (as Servetus had called Calvin), meaning by that nearly the same as tritheists. The name Unitarian, which thus originated in Transylvania, was at length taken up by the later Socinians, and thence passed to England and America.

   We are now at the golden age of Unitarianism in Transylvania, when the new faith rapidly spread in all directions, as rings spread on the water. The king had openly given it his adherence, and so of course the court followed his example to make doubly sure of enjoying his favor. At one time seven of his councillors became Unitarians; generals, judges, and many of the higher officials followed, until there remained hardly a family of importance that had not accepted the new faith. Its strength was especially in the larger towns and in the villages of Szeklerland; while able professors whom Dávid had secured, some of them distinguished refugees from persecution in other countries, taught it in thirteen higher schools or colleges, chief of which was the college founded by the king at Kolozsvar, and occupying the buildings of an abandoned Dominican monastery. The press, too, was unceasingly active in the cause, and in the one year 1568 no fewer than twelve works, eight of them by Dávid himself, were published in Latin for scholars, or in Hungarian for the common people. As in Poland,1 so here, when a noble became Unitarian, the churches on his estates were likely to be placed under ministers of his faith, and thus became Unitarian also. Before Dávid died there were far over three hundred Unitarian churches in Transylvania and the neighboring counties of Hungary; and before the end of the century some four hundred and twenty-five, beside some sixty more in lower Hungary. This considerably exceeded the number in Poland.

   There was one misgiving to trouble Dávid's mind. So long as the king lived, they were sure of his protection and sympathy; but he was not in strong health — suppose he should die? To be sure, freedom of worship and preaching had been decreed, and persecution on account of religion had been forbidden; but the Unitarian Church had no such legal standing as the other churches had. Dávid urged this matter upon the attention of the king, and he was not slow to respond. At the Diet of Maros Vasarhely held early in 1571, after ample discussion, the king granted the people and church of Kolozsvar certain privileges which had been impaired by the withdrawal of the Saxons; and, what was of more importance, he established perfect equality of the four chief religions, Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Unitarian. These were henceforth known as the four "received religions": that is, while other religions might be merely tolerated, these were legally recognized and protected, and their members had the right to hold high public office. This action crowned the broad policy of King John Sigismund with regard to religious matters. All rulers of Transylvania were required henceforth to take oath at coronation to preserve the equal rights secured by this decree, and it has ever since been the most prized and the first mentioned of all the rights the constitution grants. It is worth more than passing notice that at the only time in history when there has been a Unitarian king on the throne, and a Unitarian government in power, they used their power not to oppress other forms of religion, nor to secure exceptional privileges for their own, but to insist upon equal rights and privileges for all.

   Less than two months after this act the king died. The day after the Diet rose, while he was about to go to one of his castles for a rest, he was seriously injured by a runaway accident. His health was already frail, complications set in, and he passed away at Gyulafehervar March 15, 1571, not yet thirty-one years old. He was deeply mourned, for, apart from animosities arising out of religion, he had been popular with his subjects for his qualities of mind and heart and for his personal character, and was known for his justice and mercy. During his whole reign he had had to contend with enemies who coveted his throne and land, and who were constantly inciting troubles within his kingdom. Nine times his life had been attempted. He died childless, for though he would gladly have married, his enemies repeatedly prevented such an alliance, urging against him that he was an abandoned heretic, but really desiring to see his line become extinct, that they might obtain his crown. Though always in delicate health he more than once showed himself an able general and a resourceful statesman; and realizing that Transylvania would fare best if separate from Hungary, he followed a policy which laid the foundation for a century of independent national life for his country. He fostered science and art, was the friend of scholars and the patron of education, doing much to found and support schools and colleges; but above all else he was interested in religion, and no name among modern rulers deserves to stand higher than his for his pioneer work in the cause of equal freedom to different religions. Let him be remembered by us in honor as the one Unitarian king.

   While Unitarianism was thus rapidly gaining ground in Transylvania, a more modest growth was also at the same time taking place in Hungary proper. Though his control of them was disputed, King John Sigismund was supposed to rule over ten or twelve of the Hungarian counties north and west of Transylvania; and although the Calvinists were strongly in the majority there, Unitarians were in the less danger of being persecuted in those parts. The chief apostle of the faith in the upper counties was Lukas Egri, minister of the church at Ungvar and one of the most learned ministers in the country. He won so many converts to his views that the synod was forced to take notice of it in 1566, when he presented a statement of belief that was regarded as unsound as to the Trinity, though no action was then taken. Two years later the orthodox called another synod at Kassa, under the auspices of the Catholic General Schwendi who was in command there. Egri was summoned to attend, and presented twenty-seven theses, which were debated. He was condemned as heretical; and as he refused to retract and sign an orthodox confession, the general threw him into prison without further trial,2 and there he lay for five long years, nor was he released until three years after he had recanted. The spread of Unitarianism in Hungary was also much furthered by the last great controversy between Dávid and Melius at Nagyvarad in 1569.3 Soon after that, Stephen Balasz (Basilius) succeeded in converting a church of 3,000 members at Nagyvarad to the Unitarian faith, and this church, with its fine school attached, lasted far on into the next century. A little later Unitarianism was preached even at Debreczen, as well as at numerous other places east of the Tisza, and even as far west as Esztergom (Gran), and Melius had to exert himself to the utmost to prevent its spread in other centers in Hungary.

   In Lower Hungary the Unitarian faith spread much faster yet. That district was then under the rule of the Sultan, who allowed much greater religious freedom than did either Catholics or orthodox Protestants. After his successful work at Nagyvarad, Balasz proved a most effective missionary in that region, spreading his faith from city to city south and west. He soon called two ministers from Transylvania to assist him, and others followed them. They held the usual public debates, and their progress through the country was a triumphal procession. They came at length to have in the two counties of Temes and Baranya alone more than sixty churches, many of them with schools, of which the chief were at Temesvar, the seat of the Turkish government, and at the old university city of Pecs (Fünfkirchen), which also had a famous school and became an active missionary center for the region. Government officials joined the movement and assisted it with their wealth; and after King John's death, the press which he had given the Unitarians at Gyulafehervar was brought here, and through the circulation of Unitarian books many of the Calvinist ministers of the county were converted. After a few years these churches became separated from those in Transylvania, and had their own "Bishop of Lower Hungary," Paul Karadi, whose seat was at Temesvar.

   Not all went smoothly, however. A tragic discussion was held in 1574, in which the Calvinist preacher Vörösmarti debated against the Unitarians Lukas Tolnai and George Alvinczi. The Calvinists won the debate, and their bishop thereupon induced the local government to condemn their opponents to death. Tolnai escaped to Pecs, where he was protected; but Alvinczi was hanged. A bold move was then made. A wealthy Unitarian living in the vicinity, despite the fact that a complainant had been beheaded some years before, complained of the matter to the Turkish Pasha at Buda, and demanded as a satisfaction for the death of Alvinezi that the Calvinistic bishop also be put to death. The bishop was ordered to appear. He maintained that he had acted within the law. A disputation was ordered, with three debaters on each side, and it took place before a great crowd representing Catholics, Greeks, Reformed, Unitarians, Jews, and Turks. The Pasha decided at the end that the execution of Alvinczi had been inhuman, and condemned the three Calvinists to death as murderers. The orthodox were in a panic at the prospect of having to take some of their own medicine, and interceded for the lives of the three. The Unitarians supported their plea, saying they did not wish revenge. After lying in prison for some time in suspense, the three were released upon payment of a large ransom, and a large further annual tribute was levied on the whole province. This was both more satisfactory to the Calvinists and more profitable to the Pasha than an execution would have been. The Calvinists did not venture to repeat the offense. Later discussions were milder in their tone, and at a famous one at Pecs in 1588 between the Unitarian missionary Valaszuti and the Calvinist scholar Skaricza, the Unitarian side was victorious.

   To return to Transylvania. The death of King John Sigismund was the beginning of sorrows for the Unitarians. They had hoped that his successor might be Gaspar Bekes,4 who was the king's own choice, and had been his high chamberlain and closest adviser; for he would carry out the political policies that John had at heart, and he was also a Unitarian; but unfortunately he was absent on a political mission when the king died. His enemies intrigued against him in his absence, and his rival's brother was in command of the army; so that, although he returned home as soon as possible, and mustered all his forces at the Diet following, the nobles chose one who was like themselves a Magyar, though a Catholic, and one of the very few magnates who had remained in that faith.

   Upon receiving the crown the new prince, Stephen Bathori, was required to take oath to protect the four received religions in all their rights; and he was, for his time, a fair and just ruler, who declared that it was a grievous crime for one to try to rule the conscience of another. Although unfriendly to the Reformation, he promoted Calvinists and Lutherans to public office without prejudice; but he set his face against Unitarianism, and determined by all fair means to check its spread. Moreover, as his rival Bekes had been an eminent Unitarian leader, and as most of his followers had been of that faith, and as they had raised an insurrection, refusing to acknowledge Stephen's authority, the whole Unitarian community of course fell under suspicion of being not only heretical but also disloyal. He therefore at once began an anti-Unitarian movement, which was of course eagerly fostered by the Lutherans and Calvinists. The king removed all Unitarians from court and from high public office, and he appointed another court preacher in place of Dávid. Reviving an old law, he made it impossible for them to print their books without his leave, and he thus cut off one of the chief means they had used to spread their faith. The Unitarian printer was exiled, and took his press to Pecs in Hungary.5

   Another line of attack was upon the teaching of the Unitarians. The Diet decreed in 1572 and 1573 that any "innovators," introducing further reforms or changes in religion, should be excommunicated and banished, or even imprisoned or put to death for blasphemy, at the discretion of the prince, and we shall soon see to what this led. In 1574 Dávid's life and teaching were investigated at the synod of Nagy Enyed in order if possible to discover some scandal that might humiliate him and destroy his influence. Each year things went from bad to worse. In 1575 Bekes was utterly defeated, many of his followers were killed in battle, over two score of the Unitarian magnates were executed as rebels, more were mutilated, and a large number of the nobles were degraded from their rank and had their property confiscated; his party (mostly Szeklers) was almost exterminated.6 With the Unitarian cause so shattered, the prince now attempted to proselyte those that were left, though with little success.

   All this time Biandrata had managed to retain his position as court physician, and continued to be high in the counsels of the prince. When the throne of Poland fell vacant in 1574, and Stephen became a candidate for it, he sent Biandrata thither in his interest, and it was largely through his physician's efforts that Stephen received the election in the following year.7 But for him, perhaps the Unitarians might have fared far worse than they did; and it is significant that soon afterwards, at the Diet of 1576, the office of the Unitarian bishop was given legal recognition. Stephen left the government of Transylvania to his brother Christopher as regent, who proved less tolerant than he, and more determined to restore the Catholic Church; but despite objections from Catholic quarters he still retained Biandrata in his service and in his place at court. In the year after Christopher took control, further measures were taken to restrict the activity of the Unitarians. The Diet ordered that their bishop be forbidden to visit their churches and to hold synods except at Kolozsvar and Torda, where they were most numerous. Elsewhere the oversight of the churches was assigned to the Reformed superintendent, with leave to convert them to Calvinism if he could. In Szeklerland this rule was in force for more than a century, much to the detriment of the Unitarian cause, as we shall see. Even the Reformed were forbidden to make other proselytes.

   Every effort was thus made to give the Catholics a chance to win the country back to their own faith, and in 1579 the prince appealed to the Jesuits to come and assist in restoring the influence of their church, as they had been asked to do in Poland fifteen years before.8 They came with alacrity, and with his support at once set up schools at Nagyvarad and Kolozsvar; while at Gyulafehervar, where Christopher gave them the Unitarian school, he at once put the young Prince Sigismund under their instruction. This of course now at once became the fashionable school, where the sons of the magnates might be educated along with their future prince. Jesuit influence spread rapidly, both with the prince and among the people so rapidly, in fact, and with so much interference in policies of state, that in 1588 the nobles in the Diet unanimously voted to have them expelled from the land, lest through their machinations Transylvania be soon brought under the rule of Catholic Austria, which was indeed the Jesuit design. They managed to get back again more than once, but the feeling against them was so strong and so general that they were never allowed to stay long enough to gain control of things, as they did in Poland. It is due to this fact as much as to any other that Unitarianism was not overthrown also in Transylvania.

   While the Unitarians had received staggering blows in the death of King John, the overthrow of the party of Bekes, and the succession of laws which the Diet had passed to limit their growth, yet their internal life went on much as before. Especially in their thought, which they had not caused to set like plaster by adopting a binding creed, they kept on advancing. It was this very growth in their thought that brought about their next great trouble. Although they no longer believed that Christ was equal with God, they had inherited from their past the habit of praying to him.9 There were some of their leading thinkers, however, able scholars like Sommer and Palćologus, rectors of the Kolozsvar school, and others, who believed that this practice had never been taught in Scripture nor commanded by Christ himself, and who therefore held that it ought to be given up. This view had already been put forth about the time of King John's death, and had then been discussed by the Unitarians, Biandrata included, without meeting serious objection; and it had evidently spread widely among them without arousing much of a stir. To the more orthodox, however, this seemed like giving up Christianity altogether and going back to Judaism; and when the Jesuits came into the land in 1579, and found Dávid supporting this view, this seemed to them the most vulnerable point in the Unitarian armor, and they therefore began urging that Dávid be prosecuted for teaching such blasphemy. It is they that were really at the bottom of what followed.

   Dávid, whose mind was always ready for progress, had adopted this view by 1572, though for several years he had happened to say little or nothing upon it. At this unfortunate time, however, just as the Catholics were becoming aggressive, and the Diet in 1577 had renewed the law against further "innovations," he began to preach boldly. At the Unitarian synod at Torda in 1578, with 322 clergy present, he had taken occasion to speak against the worship of Christ, and infant baptism had also been abolished as unscriptural. Dávid went on in public addresses and private discussions to further reformation of doctrine; and though the Diet the next month uttered yet another warning against "innovations," he ignored the warning, and at the autumn synod continued the doctrinal discussions as before. Biandrata at court saw full well what the Jesuits were waiting for, and that the prince under their pressure was growing impatient; and he realized that there was great danger lest all Unitarians be banished from the country. He urged Dávid to keep quiet, and when Dávid replied that this would be hypocrisy, Biandrata next suggested to him that in order to save the whole cause from ruin it might be well to have two or three of the ministers who were most zealous in spreading this new teaching tried for heresy. It might have been a politic move to make, but Dávid indignantly rejected a proposal so dishonorable.

   Biandrata now tried another tack. He had heard of Faustus Socinus and his famous debate at Basel early that year on Christ the Savior,10 and he sent for him to come and try to bring Dávid around by arguments out of the Bible. Socinus came, by way of Poland, bearing recommendations from the Polish churches; and from autumn to spring he lodged and boarded at Dávid's house, at Biandrata's expense, conducting a running discussion with him on the subject of the worship of Christ. Many of the ministers came in and took part in the debate. Socinus warned Dávid that such views would lead men back to Moses and Judaism; but Dávid remained of the same opinion still. Then Biandrata had Dávid's income from the church cut down; whereat Dávid bitterly protested, comparing this persecution of himself to Calvin's persecution of Servetus. Biandrata replied in anger that if Dávid did not abandon the offensive doctrine he should be accused and tried at the next Diet for the crime of innovation. So it was agreed between them that the matter be referred to a committee of the ministers, who in their turn put it over until a general synod. Biandrata also proposed that all the arguments on both sides be put in writing and submitted to the Polish churches for their judgment. It was agreed that this be done, and that meantime Dávid should preserve silence on the subject. He and Socinus both prepared statements of their views, which were shown to the prince and then sent to Poland. Without waiting for the answer, however, Dávid called another synod at Torda, despite Biandrata's opposition. Upon this Biandrata, thinking Dávid incorrigible and defiant, called fifty of the ministers together, told them that Dávid's case was soon to come up at the Diet, gave them a statement of Dávid's views which seriously misrepresented him, and covertly suggested to them how they had better vote if they did not wish to be removed from office and banished. At the same time he wrote Socinus to tell Dávid that whereas he had thus far defended him with the prince, he should now take side against him. The prince then ordered the Kolozsvar Council to have Dávid removed from his pastorate and kept under guard in his own house, and secluded from visitors. Dávid now suspected Socinus of treachery and ordered him from his house. All this time Dávid was ill; but the next day, being Sunday, he roused himself and preached in the two churches at Kolozsvar, telling his people of what was impending, eloquently defending the Unitarian doctrine, and declaring the worship of Christ to be just the same as invoking the Virgin Mary or the saints. It was the last sermon he ever preached. "Whatever the world may say," he concluded, "it must some time become clear that God is but one."

   The prince was naturally very angry at this, although the Kolozsvar council did their utmost to appease him, and so did many of the nobles; but he insisted that Dávid be arrested. Socinus, having recovered from an illness, went to Poland, where we have already followed his later career.11 Biandrata's feeling toward Dávid had now deepened into bitter personal animosity. He had him kept under the strictest guard, and would not allow anything done to relieve Dávid's physical sufferings, nor permit even his family to go to him, except rarely. Though too weak to stand, Dávid was at length taken in a wagon to Gyulafehervar and brought into court before the prince. The question was whether his teaching against the worship of Christ was "innovation" or not. Much evidence was brought to show that these views, instead of being new, had long been current among the Unitarians, and once assented to by even Biandrata himself. After the case had been submitted, Dávid and his friends were required to withdraw. A score or more of the Unitarian ministers, remembering Biandrata's threat, and also the orthodox ministers, swore that they had never shared these views. Only one was bold enough to declare that these things had been discussed at Nagyvarad without creating any scandal there. The nobles, however, declared that they agreed with Dávid; while on the other hand the Jesuits last of all pronounced his teachings damnable blasphemy. Dávid was again brought into court. The complainants asked mercy for him, but the orthodox ministers from Hungary demanded his life. The prince pronounced him guilty, and sentenced him to imprisonment in the castle at Deva. Further appeals in his behalf were in vain. The judgment of the Polish churches had not been waited for, but when it did come it was unfavorable to Dávid's teachings. He himself did not long survive, but died in his prison November 15, 1579. His enemies afterwards circulated terrible legends about his last days; but it is probable that he died of the illness from which he had long been suffering.

   Francis Dávid deserves to stand along with Servetus as one of the two greatest martyrs in Unitarian history. He was an untiring student of Scripture, and in his efforts to carry the reformation of Christianity through consistently he never shrank from taking the next step. This made him seem to his opponents to be utterly unstable, for their ideal was that one's religious views once formed should never be changed; but his changes were simply phases of a steady movement in one consistent direction, and he was not a man to believe a thing in his heart but keep silent about it when in his pulpit. Neither bribes nor threats could move him from faithfulness to the truth as he saw it; and his example of unswerving fidelity to his faith, even unto death, has continued to inspire his followers in Transylvania during three hundred and fifty years, of which few have been free from some sort of religious persecution. In his beliefs and teachings he was far in advance of Socinus, and of his own time; and he was the only one of the earlier Unitarian leaders in any country who would feel spiritually much at home among Unitarians of the twentieth century. While this is now his greatest praise, it then brought the greatest danger to his cause, and death to himself.

   As for Biandrata's part in this tragedy, it is not easy to be sure whether one is fair and just to him. Was he moved to it by envy and jealousy that the reformation which he had introduced into the Reformed religion should so soon and so fully have passed from his influence under that of a man whom he had himself discovered and brought forward? Was it a sense of revenge that, when his own reputation was under a cloud, and he is said to have been shunned by all respectable people, made him wish to humiliate one who had reproved him? Or was it that being in the intimacy of a Catholic court he realized that the Unitarian Church was in imminent danger of destruction unless its headlong movement away from the familiar faith and practices of all the rest of the Christian world could be arrested? All these explanations of his conduct have been given, and perhaps all of them are in some measure true. Certainly, as the trouble went on, his feeling toward Dávid seems to have grown into ever more bitter hatred as Dávid seemed to him to grow more stubborn and headstrong. The Unitarians of Transylvania have never ceased to hold his name in execration. Yet after all has been said, it deserves still to be remembered that one of the earliest and most persistent pioneers of Unitarianism, who for years imperiled his life for it, who did more than perhaps any other one person for its early spread in Poland, and was responsible for introducing it to those who could best promote it in Transylvania, was the Italian physician, Giorgio Biandrata.

   Though he had gained a temporary victory in securing the condemnation of Dávid, and still guided the policy of the church for a little while afterwards, Biandrata's influence among the Unitarians from this time on grew steadily less. While it is not likely that he ever returned to the Catholic Church, as is sometimes charged, the rest of his life was spent in Jesuit circles at court, and his interest in his own church is said to have grown cold. Legend surrounds the time, place, and circumstances of his death, but the truth probably is that he died a natural death in 1588 at Gyulafehervar.

   Socinus's part in the transaction also brought much criticism upon him, and it was believed for a time that he had willingly joined with Biandrata in a conspiracy to bring about Dávid's death. But his conduct when carefully examined seems to have been entirely correct, as of one who tried simply by force of argument to bring Dávid to a different view. Failing in this, he left Transylvania without having any part in Dávid's trial, or being even aware that anything more was intended than to restrain him from preaching until a general synod should settle the doctrine of the church.

Back Next
Click here to open the frame set built to read this document.
Text taken from a 1925 original copy of Earl Morse Wilbur's Our Unitarian Heritage.
Copyright released by Wilbur's grandchildren.
For comments of technical support, e-mail  the Webmaster at [ webmaster at pacificuu dot org ].