Friday, December 23, 2011

The Forgotten Martyr of Unitarianism

Things did not turn out well for Johann Sylvan.

We Unitarian Universalists tend to pump up our martyrs.  The Catholics have so many martyr saints, that they can barely keep track and just to keep the liturgical calendar from being overrun by them, periodically jettisons a bunch of unused or questionable ones.   

The Protestants have plenty, too, which they are eager to pin on the bloody Papists.  And the Jews, don’t get me started!  They have 6 million or so in just one sitting!  How to compete with that?

By contrast we have just a handful who have paid the ultimate price for their religious convictions, and several more who took it in the shorts for standing up for justice.  The big name, of course is Michael Servetus who got himself burned at the stake in Geneva by John Calvin himself.  Francis David rotted to death in a dank prison.  Norbert Capek met his end in a Nazi extermination camp alongside some of those Jews. Some English radical dissenters met unpleasant ends.  As far as I can tell, no American or Canadian ever was killed for just being a Unitarian or a Universalist.   But maybe I missed something.

So it was interesting to discover today a real unitarian (small u) martyr I had never heard of.

Johann Sylvan had his head severed from his body on December 23, 1572 in Heidelberg.   Unlike Servetus, he had recanted his heretical anti-trinitarianism in hopes of mercy.  Fat lot of good it did him.

Sylvan was a Lutheran preacher who rose from humble origins to prestigious pulpits and a reputation as a leading theologian.  At the time traditional Lutheranism was coming under pressure from more radical reformers, including the followers of Calvin.  Sylvan drifted into the Reform camp although Lutheranism remained the state religion.

But the reformers had powerful allies in high places.  Among them was Frederick III, Elector Palatine of the Rhine, the local ruler within the feeble Kingdom of Germany and the still Catholic Holy Roman Empire.  Eventually he proclaimed Reform.

Fredrick named Sylvan to his personal service and named him the posts of pastor and church superintendent of Kaiserslautern.  He did diplomatic service for the princeling in the Netherlands.  By 1567 he had been rewarded the even better job as pastor in Ladenburg.  He was regarded as a leading voice of the Reformers.

Things started to unravel for him the next year when a theological dispute over Church discipline erupted within Calvinist circles. Sylvan became a leader of a faction opposed to the imposition of rigorous discipline—expulsion from the “body of Christ” over matters of theology open to interpretation.  Rigid Calvinists, including his patron, favored strict application of discipline to squelch inroads of any possible dissension or heresy.

Despite his perilous position on these issues, he was still so highly regarded as a theologian that he was asked to refute a book by the Italian anti-trinitarian Giorgio Biandrata whose work was stirring up un-orthodox sentiments.  Sylvan gamely accepted the assignment, confident that he could quickly demolish the heretic’s arguments.  Instead, he found that he could not.  He could find no evidence supporting the Trinity in the Gospels.

Deeply troubled, he did further reading and even took the radical step of consulting with a famed Jewish scholar, Immanuel Tremellius who assured him that there was no basis in Hebrew texts either.  This consultation laid him open to accusations of being a Judaizer.

Sylvan joined a secret anti-trinitarian cell that included other leading Reform dissidents, Adam Neuser, Matthias Vehe-Glirius, Jakob Suter and Johann Hasler. In 1570 he drafted a manifesto entitled True Christian Confession of the Ancient Faith of the One True God and of Messiah Jesus of the True Christ, against the Three-Person Idol and the Two-Natured False Deity of the Antichrist.

Sylvan and his compatriots knew that when the treatise got out, their lives would be in jeopardy.   He and Neuser wrote to the prince of Transylvania, where the world’s first Unitarian church was flourishing.  But already under suspicion, the letter was intercepted.  Neuser was able to escape, but Sylvan was arrested.

His old sponsor, Frederick III, had died and his heir and son Louis VI had restored Lutheranism as the religion of state.  A Lutheran court proved to be no more merciful than a Calvinist one.  Despite recanting, Sylvan was condemned.  Mercifully, he was executed by being beheaded by the stroke of a broadsword, instead of being burned, a la Servetus.

On the eve of the eve of Christmas, let my fellow Unitarian Universalists take a moment to light a candle for one whom, no matter how reluctantly, gave his life for faith.

1 comment:

  1. Good to know more insights about unsung proto-Unitarians, Patrick ~ I have the same feelings for Jan Hus, whose acquaintance I made when visiting Prague on a post-Transylvania tour with the Ministerial Sisterhood nearly a decade ago... I suspect that had the advancement of moveable type occurred during his lifetime, he might've preceded Luther in the Reformation. Your thoughts?

    Another lingering interest is the Counter-Reformation. Amazing lack of research into that period. Almost as though in some ways, it still continues!