Faustus Socinus was an Italian who became the leading theologian for the Polish Brethren and who helped codify their anti-Trinitarianism into unitarianism.
On November 17, 1599 the Polish magnate John Saieninius, the ruler of Krakow, after listening carefully to a debate between an orthodox Calvinist and a member of the non-Trinitarian Polish Brethren abandoned his conventional Reformed Church affiliation and converted to proto-unitarianism. Afterword he, and later his son, extended their protection and financial support to the struggling school and seminary at nearby Rakow and its press, which was soon flooding Europe with elegantly written arguments for unitarianism in Latin, still the universal language of the learned.
Only the most devoted students of the development of the Radical Reformation and the origins of unitarianism are even dimly aware of these developments. Most of us know the Poland of today as the most intensively Catholic nation in Europe and a bastion of conservatism within the Church. But Poland in the 16th Century was a very different place. Heavily forested in the south and marked by sweeping plains and steppes in the north, it was vastly under populated due to a history of being an invasion corridor for armies on the way to someplace else. It was also on the fringe of the Catholic world, far from the firm grip of Rome. As the religious wars of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation periods wracked much of Western Europe, Poland basked in benign neglect.
The mid 16th Century was a period of rare general peace in Poland. Never succumbing to the siren call of absolute monarchy that was turning much of Europe into a blood bath, Polish kings, who held little authority, were not even hereditary, they were elected with a rule of unanimity by the nobility. When the nobles could not agree on a candidate, well there might just not be a king for a while. The feudal nobles, on the other hand, exerted enormous power over their lands. Given their relative isolation, it is somewhat surprising that many of them were among the most educated of their class in Europe, eagerly importing both books and personal tutors from the west. Many of them were very open to new ideas, and were safe to explore them without either a powerful church or king looking over their shoulders.
The same magnates were also eager to bring new settlers into their lands to make them productive—and valuable sources of taxation. Thus Poles welcomed refugees and persecuted minorities from far and wide and were willing to wink at their heresies and heterodoxies. Which is why Jews, mercilessly persecuted almost everywhere else were given refuge to establish their rich shtetl culture there.
Also welcomed were members of the Brethren, a pietistic sect growing out of Lutheranism that emphasized personal spiritual life, the “priesthood of all believers,” individual study and interpretation of scripture, living a life reflecting Christ-like simplicity and charity, believers’ baptism, rationality in religious debate, and tolerance of religious differences. They also tended to be pacifistic and tried to stay out of the religious wars tearing apart Germany and the Netherlands from which many of them came. The Brethren were equally unpopular with Lutherans and Catholics, and persecuted by both. Many fled to Poland and were welcomed because of their reputation as thrifty hard workers.
Some of those Brethren were followers of Obbe Phillips and Menno Simons, Dutch preachers who denied the Trinity. Rudolph Martin was particularly active in spreading this doctrine and as early as 1549 was preaching it in Krakow and finding an appreciative audience not only among the immigrants, but among the local aristocracy. Soon other Brethren from Switzerland, Germany, Moravia and the Hapsburg territories made their way to Poland as persecution became ever more severe and King Sigismund II policy of tolerance of a non-Trinitarian view of Christ, believers’ baptism and freedom of Biblical study. Martin’s teaching spread widely among them, and among receptive nobles.
At the same time more conventional Lutherans and Calvinists were making inroads themselves and the Catholic Church seemed both in disarray and retreat. Determined to win back Poland, the Jesuits came in 1564, just as the Polish Brethren were beginning to flower as a mature movement, and for fifty years worked surreptitiously to end toleration and reimpose Roman Catholicism.
In 1558 a Synod was held at Princzow that helped organize, however loosely, the Brethren as a distinct religious movement. That synod was addressed by Blandrata an Italian dissenter from the Piedmont who was at the time one of the leading anti-Trinitarians. Other prominent western dissenters came either seeking refuge or viewing Poland as fertile ground.
None were more important than Fausto Sozzini, known best by his Latin name Faustus Socinus. Another Italian, he was on the run from the Inquisition when he arrived in Poland via Rumania where he had established warm relations with another group of Brethren. Despite agreeing with the Brethren on almost all major theological points, Socinus refused baptism and was thus never able to either join the sect or wield any official position. But he soon became the trusted advisor to Brethren leaders who appreciated his deep scholarship and integrity. Over the years he became the unofficial chief theologian of the Polish Brethren and moved them from crude anti-Trinitarianism toward positive unitarianism. Later the Jesuits and other enemies would brand the Brethren as Socinians, a label that they rejected as they also objected to being called Anabaptists.
In 1569 Rakow was established as a Brethren community just north east of Krakow. It quickly became the spiritual and intellectual hub of the spreading community. Cooperative farms and orchards supported a small school and eventually a print shop. Within a few years the shop was producing books and tracts on Brethren theology and other topics in Latin. Intended for instruction locally, the books were of such high quality that they soon began circulating in pietistic and Reform circles throughout Europe.
When Rakow came under the sponsorship of the Saieninius family at the turn of the century, the school was able to expand into full college, famous throughout Europe for the quality of its instruction and attracting scholars and students not just from the local Brethren but from many of the “best families in Europe.” More than 1000 students regularly studied there.
The press got even busier. Around 1605 the Racovian Catechism was drawn up by three noted Brethren scholars, Smaltzy, Moscorovy and Volkel. This famous book went through many editions, it declared that the “Brethren in Poland and Lithuania who confess One God the Father.” It was the clearest and frankest exposition of biblicaly based unitarianism yet made. The work was especially compelling for its calmness of reasoning and its refrain from attacking the theological views of opponents, unlike the openly contemptuous sarcasm that the martyred Michel Servetus had heaped on opponents in his earlier writing. The quality of the book made it especially dangerous and it was banned in many places by Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists alike. Mere position of the book was made an offense subject to burning at the stake for heresy by decree of that Defender of the Faith King Henry VII of England.
Despite the growing storms of opposition abroad, the early 17th Century was the glory days of the Polish Brethren. Many of the nobles and gentry who converted to the faith made a display of living as did Christ by abolishing serfdom on their estates, establishing farming communes, and renouncing the privileges of rank to be part of the Christian community. Needless to say, this trend alarmed other nobles, even other Reform members. They threw their lot in with the on-going Jesuit plan to crush the Brethren.
By the 1620’s the Jesuits were appealing to the still largely Catholic class of serfs to turn against the Brethren, whose cooperative communities and orderly farms were far more prosperous than the tiny plots they were allowed to farm for their own families. Although Poles of all classes had joined the Brethren, many of them were still either immigrants or the descendents of immigrants and many of their leaders had German, rather than Polish names. The classic politics of resentment and tribalism worked well. Peasants began to riot against the Brethren and attack their churches and schools.
Soon where local magnates were Catholic, prosecution of members of the Brethren on various charges minor and major was stepped up. As early a 1611 John Tyscoviski of Bielsko was charged with refusing to swear by a triune God in court and was tortured and put to death in Warsaw. He was just the first. Brethren and other “heretics” isolated in majority Catholic areas were at first the targets while those on lands protected by local magnates and nobles were safer.
An indiscretion by riotous students at the College in Rakow in 1638 gave Catholic authorities the long sought after excuse to close the school for good, scatter its students, and end it pesky publishing.
The next year 1639 Katherine Weigel (often called Catherine Vogel in the West), an 80 year old Catholic convert to Judaism was burned at the stake after being imprisoned for ten years for denying the Trinity. Although she was a Judenizer, rather than a member of the Brethren, her death in the capital of the Brethren heartland, was a pointed warning of what was to come.
By the 1650’s Poland reverted to one of its periodic episodes of chaos. Austrians and Romanians were attacking in the south and Polish nobles battled invading Tartars and Cossacks in the north. Much of the later fighting took place around Krakow. The peaceful Brethren tried to remain neutral, while Jesuit agents bribed the Cossacks to attack and burn Brethren estates, churches, and communes.
When the Swedes conquered Poland driving out King Casmir, the Brethren, like the Calvinists and Catholics, were required to swear loyalty to the Swedish King. When Casmir later rallied his forces and expelled the Swedes, the Brethren never formally renounced their oath of loyalty although they had offered the Swedes no support and as was their custom tried to maintain peaceful neutrality. The Jesuits whipped up a storm, accusing the Brethren of being agents of a foreign enemy.
As a result in 1658 the Polish Diet proclaimed:
The toleration granted to dissenters from the church does not legally extend to the unitarians whom they call anabaptists, this being a new heresy. Therefore all who within such a limited time will not embrace the Roman Catholic religion shall be banished out of Poland; allowing, however, two years to sell their estates, whether real or personal.
Even before the two years were up, authorities ignored widespread riots against the community and seizures of their property.
In 1660, right on schedule the expulsion began with ruthless efficiency. The Brethren were scattered to uncertain fates in Prussia, Silesia, Moravia, and Russia. Some were welcomed into existing, by non-unitarian Brethren groups, others were persecuted by local authorities and driven underground. A few hundred managed to get to Transylvania to join Unitarians already there. Many migrated to the Netherlands, a few even reached England. In this they were helped by members of the congregations founded through the influence of John Biddle.
The Polish Brethren passed into history. Their influence did not. In exile they continued to publish and circulate clandestine copies of the Racovian Catechism into the next century. Those books were passed hand to hand and treasured. They came into the hands of the English Dissenters who became Unitarian and who were called Socinians by their enemies.
The triumphant Catholics of Poland soon turned their attention to the Lutherans and Calvinists and they, too, were crushed. As Poland was repeatedly invaded, divided, and re-divided over the next centuries, Catholicism became the unifying banner of Polish nationalism. To this day, you will find no monuments or markers commemorating the once vibrant flowering of Polish religious tolerance.