Unitarianism in Transylvania, after Dávid’s Death, 15701690:  A Century of Calvinist Oppression


    The imprisonment of Dávid left the Unitarian churches without organization or leadership.  Biandrata’s interest in their cause led him at once to set about organizing them on a foundation which should make them safe from further attacks under the law, and should ensure them an orderly and responsible growth. Within a month he called a general synod at Kolozsvar, and it was attended by nearly all the clergy.   In their hearts very many of them sympathized with Dávid and shared his views, and they were little inclined to fall in with any plans Biandrata might now have in hand; but to save the church from the charge of being “deniers of Christ,” he got them (by misrepresentation or a trick, it is said) to adopt a confession of faith which was supposed to be compiled from books published in the time of John Sigismund.  It made the adoration of Christ henceforth compulsory in public worship, and was designed to be a bar to any further changes in the direction in which Dávid had been moving.  A consistory of twenty-four members was chosen to manage church affairs, and a little later twelve deans were elected to have supervision of as many separate districts.

    Biandrata also had a candidate for bishop; but the brethren were unwilling to vote for him while Dávid still lived, so that on Biandrata’s nomination the prince appointed his candidate both bishop and chief minister of the Kolozsvar church.  The new bishop, Demetrius Hunyadi, was wisely chosen.  He had been a protégé of John Sigismund, a friend of Stephen Bathori, and rector of the Kolozsvar school.  While conservative in his beliefs, he was highly educated, as well as a man of great organizing ability.  He soon convened the consistory to establish rules for the government of the churches, and it ordered that infant baptism, which had not been observed for some time, should be restored; while the ministers were all made subject to the bishop and consistory.  In the autumn the judgment of the Polish churches on the case of Dávid was received, strongly condemning the views of Dávid.  All but sixteen or eighteen out of 250 ministers subscribed to it, while most of the rest at length gave in.  All debate on the disputed questions was henceforth closed.  Bishop Hunyadi lived until 1592, and in his time the church became well established in ways that were safe and conservative, though they left little room for progress.

    In many cases, however, the conformity was only outward.  Whatever they might have been compelled to adopt, the ministers could not so easily change their convictions, and many of them continued quietly to believe and preach and practice as before.  In fact, as soon as Biandrata’s pressure was off, no serious attempt was made for several years to enforce the severe laws which had been passed against Dávid’s teaching; and various high nobles and officials were known openly to hold his views.  Even a hundred years later there were many of the Unitarians who did not practice infant baptism; and refusal to adore Christ was widespread for nearly sixty years until, as we shall soon see, the subject again brought the Unitarians before the Diet.

    Dávid’s views had been very generally accepted among the churches in Lower Hungary, and as these were not subject to Transylvania but under the Turkish rule, they paid no heed to the new regulations.  Moreover, many of the best ministers in the church now left Transylvania and went to Hungary that they might enjoy greater religious freedom.  There was an angry interchange of letters, the Hungarians sharply upbraiding the Transylvanians for their desertion of Dávid.  The Hungarian churches now withdrew by themselves and chose a bishop of their own, and henceforth, in spite of efforts to win them back, they had little to do with the brethren in Transylvania, and little sympathy with them.  At the same time, many of the nobles, setting political prospects before religious convictions, abandoned the Unitarian Church and professed the Calvinist or the Catholic faith.  Transylvania was on the way to become Catholic again; and the next prince, the young Sigismund Bathori, who had been educated by the Jesuits, was the willing tool of their policy to turn the country over to Catholic Austria.  He was persuaded to put many of the Protestant magnates to death on a false charge of treason and he left his land for some years like a football to be fought over between Austria and Turkey, and to be wounded, burned, and pillaged by each in turn.  For eighteen years from his accession in 1588 there was no peace or security in Transylvania.  All this aggravated the misfortunes of the Unitarians.

    Prince Sigismund surrendered his government to the Emperor Rudolf in 1595 and retired from the country.  The Emperor then sent his bloody General Basta to subdue Transylvania and exterminate Protestantism.  The Catholic bishop recommended that the Unitarian churches be taken away and their ministers banished, and in many cases this was done.  The Jesuits returned and were given the chief Unitarian church at Kolozsvar in 1603.  General Barbiano, a Roman monk turned soldier, declared that they would kill every grown person in Hungary and Transylvania who refused to join the Catholic Church.  Basta treated the Protestants so cruelly that for generations they used his name to frighten their children.  He hung ministers up to smother in smoke from piles of their own burning books, or flayed them alive.  His soldiers pillaged the houses of the nobles, and ravished their wives and daughters.  Terrible famine followed.  For a few months, while their enemies fell out with one another, there was a successful uprising of the Transylvanians under the leadership of a brave Szekler named Moses Szekely, who was a Unitarian.1  He proved a great general, and won most of the country back, took Kolozsvar, expelled the Jesuits, and restored their church to the Unitarians.  It looked for a time as if the Unitarians were again to have a ruler of their own faith; for after winning sweeping victories Szekely was elected prince at Gyulafehervar in 1603.  He was about to be recognized by the Emperor when the enemy settled their quarrels and united against him, and a few weeks later he was defeated and killed in a night battle near Brasso (Kronstadt), and most of the nobility of the land were captured or fell with him.  Basta returned, more cruel than ever.  Most of the ministers fled the country, and the Unitarian bishop saved his life by hiding in an iron mine.  The church at Kolozsvar was again given to the Jesuits, and for three years the Unitarians there had to worship secretly in a private house.

    At length the Protestants of Hungary and Transylvania rallied under the heroic leader Stephen Bocskai, a Calvinist of Nagyvarad, who was elected prince in 1605.  Basta was utterly defeated, and the emperor sought peace.  The liberties of both Protestants and Catholics were proclaimed, and Bocskai again expelled the Jesuits and restored to the Unitarians their churches and schools.  The next year he died of poison.  Of course in this troubled period the Unitarians could not hope to increase; but wasted as they were by war and persecution, it was wonderful how steadfastly they stuck to their faith under the leadership of their fearless and faithful bishops.

    With Bocskai began a rule of Transylvania which, for nearly a century, remained in the hands of Calvinists, and the Reformed Church thus held the lead until 1690.  They did not violently oppress the Unitarians, and they pretended to observe the laws of religious freedom; but they were as unfriendly as ever to the Unitarian faith and church, and hampered its growth whenever possible.  Thus they insisted in 1605 that the Calvinist minority should be given equal rights with the large Unitarian majority at Kolozsvar.  Soon afterwards it was ordered that Calvinistic preaching should be had there, where until now there had been only Unitarian churches; and then a church and school were set aside for the Reformed, and then another and another.  In 1615 it was enacted that a church having mixed membership should be wholly controlled by those of the majority faith; and in general the government in every way used its power to favor the Calvinist cause as much as the law allowed.

    From 1613 to 1629 Prince Gabriel Bethlen ruled.  He was perhaps the greatest of Transylvania’s native rulers, a wise and firm statesman; also a zealous Calvinist, deeply interested in religion, and determined in every lawful way to promote his own form of it.  Yet the Unitarians, in spite of all they had suffered, were still very strong, and could have kept at least even, had it not been for one thing which now arose to trouble them.  When religious bigotry wishes to pursue a course of persecution, any pretext, however slight, will serve the purpose for entering on it.  Bethlen found his pretext in the Sabbatarianism of some of the Unitarians.  To understand this matter we must go back a little.  After the death of Dávid, Unitarianism showed two distinct tendencies.  The conservatives of course followed the beliefs and observed the practices established by Biandrata and Bishop Hunyadi in 1579; but there were a great many who held with Dávid, even though they dared not confess it, and who continued to go on further in the direction in which Dávid had seemed to be setting out.  Reacting against the new requirements, they took to studying their Bibles more than ever, and especially the Old Testament, in which they found various neglected commands which they now felt bound to keep.  Hence very few years after Dávid’s death it was charged that at Kolozsvar many had given up having their infants baptized, were abstaining from eating pork or blood or things strangled, and in various other ways resembled the Jews, especially as they celebrated Jewish festivals and observed the Sabbath.  Thus they came to be called Judaizers, or Sabbatarians.  They spread most of all in Szeklerland, among the rural population; but they were inoffensive, held no open meetings, and for some time were generally tolerated.  Their founder was one Andrew Eössi, who had come to his beliefs about 1588 while reading his Bible for consolation after the death of his three sons.

    In the time of Sigismund Bathori, Sabbatarianism was coming to be regarded as practically a new religious sect, and it was proposed to punish it severely as an “innovation”; but war soon put a stop to the persecutions that were begun.  Although one or two more Diets passed laws against them, the laws were not enforced; but Bethlen discovered here a chance, by attacking the Sabbatarians, to weaken the Unitarian Church, to which the most of them belonged, and in 1615 he began a severe persecution of them as blasphemers. Three years later he had a general synod of the Unitarian churches called, and sent the Reformed Bishop Dajka to preside over it as his personal representative, and had the Sabbatarians summoned to attend it.  To escape prosecution many of them at once went over to the Reformed Church; the rest were then excluded from their membership in the Unitarian Church and turned over to the Reformed ministers to be converted back to Christianity.  Accompanied by 300 soldiers, Bishop Dajka next went through two whole counties where the Sabbatarians were most numerous, and under pretense of rooting them out he took the churches away from the Unitarians right and left, wherever there was the least suspicion of Sabbatarianism, and turned their ministers out of their pulpits and placed them under arrest.  The Diet thought this was going too far, and interfered.  In 1622, however, Bishop Dajka attained the same end in another way.  As the law then stood, even the Unitarian churches in Szeklerland were to be visited and supervised by the Reformed bishop rather than by the Unitarian.2  He converted a well-known Unitarian minister to the Reformed faith, though the fact was kept a secret, and took him with him as he visited the Unitarian churches.  He would ask the members if they professed the same faith as this pastor Siko, to which they answered yes.  Thereupon he reported that in his presence all these churches had abjured Unitarianism and professed the Reformed faith; their Unitarian ministers were turned out, and Reformed ministers were settled in place of them.  Thus by a contemptible deception the Unitarians were deprived of sixty-two churches at once, and no attempt was ever made to right the wrong.

    Sabbatarianism was now in a way to die out (for the exclusion of its followers from the church meant their disqualification from holding public office, and this was regarded as a very great loss), had it not been revived in a singular way.  A man named Simon Pecsi had in earlier life been teacher of the three sons of the Eössi above mentioned, and after their death Pecsi had been adopted by him, and at length had inherited his large fortune.  He then went abroad for extensive travel and study, and returning entered upon public life, became secretary to Bocskai, and at length chancellor under Bethlen.  Falling under suspicion of disloyalty, he was imprisoned for nine years, during which he gave himself to much thought upon religious subjects.  The result was that he came out of prison a zealous Sabbatarian, and by his able published writings and his wide personal influence soon spread the movement widely among all classes; while the Unitarian bishop, being a Pole, knew too little Hungarian to keep track of what was going on in his churches.  Bethlen had now been succeeded by George Rakoczy I, another zealous Calvinist, who had less love for Unitarians since they had supported his rival for the crown, one of their own number.3  After settling his political problems, therefore, he began a new persecution of the Sabbatarian Unitarians, whom he required to return to one of the other “received” religions on pain of death and confiscation of property.  Pecsi himself was again imprisoned, and forfeited nearly all his property, though when at length released he is said to have secured himself against further trouble by joining the Reformed Church.

    One more line of attack remained to be tried against the Unitarians: as to whether they were observing the law about the worship of Christ, which had been forced upon them at the time of Dávid’s trial.  It was well known that many of the ministers had accepted the new creed at that time simply because they must, or else run the risk of being imprisoned or perhaps put to death as innovators; while many of the nobles had made no secret at Dávid’s trial that they favored his views.  The matter was allowed to drift at the time, since for a generation the country was too much upset by political disturbances to pay much attention to the details of religion.  They continued in their heresy.  Rakoczy, however, began in 1635 to take more vigorous measures, and threatened, unless they changed, to prosecute them before the Diet.  As they still persisted, a special Diet was called at Dees in 1638 to take up the matter.  Again, as before, many became alarmed lest they lose their political rights, and for safety went over to the Reformed Church.  In the end the parties reached an agreement known as the Settlement of Dees (Complanatio Deesiana),4 which was accepted by the prince, the Diet, and all others concerned.  This gave the Unitarian belief a new and clearer statement, and required a stricter adherence to the worship of Christ (though not as God), and to the use of the sacraments; while any one found innovating again was to be beheaded and to have his estates confiscated.  All this was then duly ratified in the church synod, a new catechism was based upon it, and from that time on the subject gave no further trouble.

    The Diet at Dees took other actions affecting the Unitarians.  It forbade the publishing of Unitarian books without license from the prince.  Further action was also taken against the Sabbatarians, of whom some were sentenced to death, many others were imprisoned, and one was stoned to death by a street mob as a blasphemer, and his wife pilloried in the marketplace and banished; while yet others had to submit to public humiliation, and all who would not recant had their property confiscated.  From this time on, the Sabbatarians became negligible, though a few of them still remain to this day, now professed Jews in faith and customs.

    Besides the misfortunes of which we have spoken, the Unitarians lost many churches in Szeklerland through an invasion of the Tatars in 1622, and in the same year many of their members at Kolozsvar died of the plague; while yet others in this troubled period (1616 – 1632) became demoralized, as we have noted,5 because their Bishop Radecki, being a Pole, could not speak Hungarian, and thus could not give his churches the oversight they required. Hence the sixty years after Dávid’s death were a time during which Unitarianism in Transylvania steadily lost ground.  Those that survived did so through their heroic faithfulness, and thus developed qualities they were greatly to need under Catholic persecutions in the next century.  Meantime they were first to enjoy a half century of comparative quiet, during which they might regain lost ground, and again develop a healthy church life.

    During the rest of the seventeenth century the Unitarians of Transylvania saw better days, and held their own fairly well.  Their ministers and teachers were well educated in their college at Kolozsvar, and the more promising were sent for further education to Luclavice6 in Poland, to Germany, or to Leiden and Amsterdam in Holland where they were kindly received by the Remonstrants.  From now on they worked unweariedly to repair their losses and build up their church.  They never long escaped injury from war, however.  Prince George Rakoczy II was, as we have seen,7 lured into invading Poland in 1657, and of his army of 50,000 only 3,000 returned.  The flower of Transylvanian nobility perished or were taken into captivity, among them of course large numbers of Unitarians; and not long afterwards, while Austria invaded the country on the one side, Turks and Tatars came with fire and sword on the other, carrying many into slavery, and leaving burned homes and churches behind them; and in the wake of all this came the plague ravaging the whole land.  For two years the church was unable even to elect a bishop, no synods were held, and the college at Kolozsvar was reduced to but nine students.

    It was just at this period that the miserable company of Polish exiles arrived8, to find their Kolozsvar brethren kind and hospitable though impoverished; for friendly relations had long been kept up between the Unitarians of both countries, scholars and teachers had gone back and forth, and Poland had furnished several ministers for the Saxon Unitarian church at Kolozsvar, and even one bishop.  The new Prince Michael Apaffi I arranged for their permanent settlement at a time when hardly another country in Europe was ready to make them welcome.  Later on they were joined by other exiles, from Poland or Prussia; and while all were poor, and long afterwards were still obliged to ask aid from their more fortunate brethren elsewhere, on the whole they brought strength to the Unitarian cause.

    The number of churches had now fallen to not much over 200 — hardly half of what they had been in Dávid’s time; but under Bishop Koncz, 1663 – 1684, recovery again began, and churches were rebuilt or repaired.  In one instance the Unitarians took from the Calvinists by force a church which had formerly been their own, and the prince approved their action.  Koncz especially fostered a school by each village church, and soon brought these to a high state of excellence; the churches flourished again, and good discipline was maintained.

    In Lower Hungary for more than fifty years after Dávid’s death, Unitarian churches, being under the protection of Turkish rule, flourished wonderfully in seven counties, a country as large as Transylvania itself.  At Pecs in 1632 the Catholics were extinct, and nearly every citizen was a Unitarian; and so it was in three whole counties west of the Danube.  Our records of these churches, however, are meager.  After having had but one bishop of their own, they seem to have drawn closer to the Transylvanian brethren again, and not to have appointed another.  Many of their ministers came from Transylvania, and they sent many of their sons to Kolozsvar to college.  Toward the end of the seventeenth century they commenced surely to decline.  The Jesuits had begun to come in and win the field back again.  Wars between Austria and Turkey ravaged the country.  In 1687 the Turks were driven from the land, and it now came back under Catholic rule. When the Emperor took Pecs from the Turks he therefore gave the Unitarian church to the Catholics, and banished its ministers.  The Calvinists were still tolerated in Hungary, and where they were numerous they, too, severely persecuted the Unitarians.  Under this irresistible double oppression, and with no legal protection whatever, they had to yield.  By 1710 the last of the churches in Hungary had been uprooted; their ministers were banished, and their members died off or joined the other churches.  Ten years later but few were left, and before the middle of the century all had become Calvinist or Catholic, or else had left the country.  Not until late in the nineteenth century was Unitarianism again planted in this region.


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