The Birthplace of Unitarianism

The early 1500s were eventful times in the Medieval world. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Inquisition, and the exploration of the New World all began. Henry VIII was on the throne of England, but it was Charles V, a Hapsburg and the last of the Holy Roman Emperors, who dominated Europe. And the Islamic Ottoman Empire was at its most powerful, ruling southeast Europe, parts of Asia, and North Africa.

It was at this time in Central Europe that Unitarianism began. And what do the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and a young Polish princess have to do with those beginnings? Let me tell you the story of a Sultan and a princess.

The princess was Isabella, the eldest child of the King of Poland. She was born in 1519, and grew up in Krakow, where she was given a humanist education by her liberal parents, and became fluent in many languages.

Isabella married the King of Hungary and moved to Budapest. He was much older than she and died just after she gave birth to a son, John Sigismund, who became heir to the throne. Soon, however, they were attacked by the Hapsburgs, who wanted Hungary for themselves, forcing mother and child to flee.

Enter Sultan Suleiman of the Ottoman Empire. He had been friends with Isabella’s father and her husband, and he took it upon himself to protect Isabella and her son, even sending his army to Budapest to do battle with the Hapsburgs. And thus the Danube River became the boundary between Christians and Muslims in Europe.

The Sultan moved Isabella and her baby to Transylvania, which was part of the Ottoman Empire. Isabella became the Queen Regent and John Sigismund the King-elect of Transylvania.

The Catholics appointed Ferenc David to be Bishop of Transylvania. Isabella liked the well-educated David, and appointed him the court preacher to her young son.

David was much affected by the Reformation. He left the Catholic Church, becoming first a Lutheran and then a Calvinist. By 1565, he began to have doubts about the Trinity and started preaching the new doctrine of one God, thereby alienating both Catholics and Protestants.

Inside Transylvania, four different religious groups were competing for favor – Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Unitarians. And these remain today the major religions of Transylvania.

In 1568, King John Sigismund called for these groups to each select a representative to debate their beliefs. David spoke for the Unitarians in the debates that lasted ten days.

These debates were deadly serious. Remember that Michael Servetus had recently been burned at the stake by John Calvin for espousing Unitarian views. Indeed, the Catholic debater in Transylvania told David, “If I win the debate, I will have your head on a plate,” to which David replied, “If I win there will be religious tolerance for all.” He also said, “We need not think alike to love alike.”

David was so convincing that John Sigismund decided to adopt his views because he was convinced that Unitarian ideas were the most reasoned, the most fair, and most respected the Transylvanian people. John Sigismund thus became the first, and only, Unitarian King.

Later in 1568, the King made good on David’s boast. He issued and the Transylvanian Parliament enacted the Edict of Torda, which prohibited the persecution of people for religious reasons and expanded the limits of religious freedom far beyond those existing in 16th century Europe.

Interestingly enough, the Edict of Torda is quite similar to one issued 11 years earlier by Queen Isabella, which also permitted freedom of religious choice to each according to their preference. And even earlier, the Ottoman Governor of Budapest forbade Catholic authorities from persecuting Protestants, stating that all “…should be able to listen and receive the word of God without any danger.”

Unfortunately, the Edict of Torda was short lived. John Sigismund died suddenly in 1571 at the age of 31. His successor removed Unitarians from public office and restricted the practice of their faith. Ferenc David persevered despite this, but was arrested for heresy in 1579.

Today, high on a hill above the town of Deva, Romania, lies an old fortress. Were you to climb the dusty road, as we have, and brave the trees and vines that have grown up around it, you could look down upon the town and sense the power and might the fortress represented to the people of Transylvania in the 16th century. If you enter the fortress, you will discover in one of the towers a prison cell with the following words: “Here died the martyr, Ferenc David, the reformer of immortal souls, the founder and bishop of the Unitarian Church.” On the wall of his cell, before he died, he wrote, “Freedom is not free.”

All in all, Central Europe was the center of religious liberalism during the 16th century. And as a result of the Islamic Ottomans, Queen Isabella, King John Sigismund, and Ferenc David, Unitarianism thrived.

And nearly 500 years later, it’s still alive there, the large cities and small country villages of Hungary and Transylvania. More than a quarter of the world’s Unitarians live in those two small countries.

And it hasn’t been easy. Unitarians here had to survive as part of the Catholic Hapsburg Empire, while constantly being accused of heresy by Protestants. In the last century, they had to struggle to keep their churches going under decades of both fascist and communist rule.

There are 150 Unitarian congregations in Hungary and Transylvania today, part of the Hungarian Unitarian Church. Most of these have partner UU churches in the United States or Canada through the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council. The goal of these partner churches is to foster dialogue and cross cultural understanding, as well as to assist Unitarian churches in one of the poorest parts of Europe. I should note that the UU Partner Church Council is headed by the father-in-law of Nic Cable, our most recent ministerial intern.

The Edict of Torda will be 450 years old this coming January. To honor this, the UUA, the Partner Church Council, the Hungarian Unitarian Church, the

International Council of UU’s, and others will be celebrating the Year of Religious Freedom throughout 2018. UU churches around the world are being encouraged to devote a service to this celebration. So this morning’s service will be the first of many.

Let me close with the words of the UU minister Harry Meserve: “It is a curious error to suppose you can carry on effectively a great liberal tradition while remaining ignorant, or almost ignorant, of the beliefs and achievements of the people who have handed that tradition over to you.” We can learn much from the people and history of Transylvania.

(written by Bob Swanson for the service on 8/27/17)