CHAPTER III
THE RISE OF UNITARIANISM IN TRANSYLVANIA, 1520–1564

Controversy over doctrinal matters in Transylvania as thus far traced has been only in the Lutheran Church; but controversy did not come to an end with the question about the Lord’s Supper, nor with the division of the church. Separation from the Lutherans had hardly taken place when discussion of a more serious problem began to claim the attention of the Calvinists. The doctrine now involved in dispute was no less than that of the Trinity; and the one to bring it forward was none other than the new court physician. When Dr. Biandrata came the second time from Poland to Transylvania it was simply as medical adviser to the King, who was at the point of death.1 Nothing was known of his entertaining dangerous heresy; and there is no good ground for presuming, as the orthodox presently did and charged, that he came with the secret plan to carry out here the system of doctrinal reform that he had been compelled to leave unfinished in Poland. Nevertheless he must have remained at heart deeply interested in the idea of a thoroughly reformed Protestant theology. He found in the young King one who, perhaps through the instructions of his trusted guardian Petrovics, had already broken with whatever Catholic faith he may once have had, but was still deeply interested in religious questions and hospitably inclined toward inquiry into them. From his office he was bound to enjoy intimate acquaintance with the King, and soon won his entire confidence as one that had no political axes to grind. He was therefore early sent on a special confidential mission to the Emperor Ferdinand,2 and accompanied the King when he went in 1566 on a critical visit to the Sultan, who showed him especial courtesy. His appointment as the King’s personal deputy at the synod at Enyed indicates that the King was already relying on him for religious counsel. Not wishing prematurely to invite trouble, Biandrata moved with caution; but within the year after his arrival he discovered in Francis Dávid, leader of the Calvinistic party in the synod at Enyed, a man whose ability in debate marked him as one that might be brought to take the lead in the further reformation of doctrine as Gregory Paulus had recently done in Poland.3

Dávid was a man of outstanding abilities, fortified by ample scholarship; an eloquent and persuasive preacher or debater, equally in German, Hungarian or Latin, whose fervent oratory easily swayed the multitude. While indefatigable and persistent in following a course once chosen of whose final triumph he felt assured, ambitious to exercize leadership, self-confident and even headstrong in action, he was yet by temperament open-minded, and ever ready to abandon an old position in favor of a new one that seemed less open to attack. This won him the reputation among his opponents of being wavering and unstable;4 but he was not that, for rapid as his changes were they were those of progress in one consistent direction. In making them he was bold and fearless, and never stopped or delayed for fear of consequences. This trait in the end contributed to his undoing, when his followers were unable or unprepared to move so fast and far as he.5

Even before Biandrata arrived upon the scene, the inquiring mind of Dávid had been attracted to the doctrine that was soon to concern them both. Servetus and Erasmus had doubtless been for some time secretly read in Hungary, and it is said that as early as 1560, while still in his active Lutheran days, Dávid had set forth objections to the doctrine of the Trinity.6 In the dedication to his early work on the true understanding of the word of God,7 he says of himself that he was aroused by God himself through his Scriptures, and that the beginning of the Unitarian religion in Transylvania was due to Him.8 Biandrata therefore found in the mind of Dávid fertile soil, and doubtless lost no time in planting seed in it. His own share in the propagation of Unitarian belief in Transylvania has probably been overestimated; but while Dávid’s was undoubtedly the effective driving force that carried the ensuing controversy through to a successful conclusion, it is evident that Biandrata from his position of influence with the King and at court was the one that first instigated it and gave it the support and guidance necessary at the beginning.

During 1565, while Biandrata was doubtless comparing notes with Dávid as to the best method of promoting the reformed religion, Dávid’s own thought was ripening, and he began from his Kolozsvár pulpit, cautiously at first, to express himself on doctrines not yet settled in the Reformed churches.9 For it must be remembered that the Re­formed party, while they had abandoned the Catholic teaching and also had lately withdrawn their adherence to that of Luther, had as yet adopted no doctrinal standard of their own.10 The way was therefore open to make any desirable revision in traditional doctrines before the Reformed churches adopted their own confession. Of the dogmas that Protestantism had taken over from the Catholic Church, the ones that had offered the most frequent stumbling-blocks to inquiring minds, and had occasioned the most serious heresies, were those of the Trinity and the deity of Christ; and it would fall to Dávid as Superintendent to be deeply concerned in any move for reforming or re­stating them. Meanwhile Biandrata had persuaded the King to transfer his court preacher Alesius to another post, and to appoint Dávid in his stead, where he might exert with King and court the greater influence in favor of reform.

On the other hand Mélius, probably warned by letters from those in Switzerland who had kept eye on Biandrata’s movements, cautioned the King against keeping at his court an abandoned heretic who had been driven out by the Swiss reformers.11 Watchful ears therefore detected the gradual change in the tone of Dávid’s preaching and matters came to a head in the same year when he, in listening to the teaching of Peter Károli, Rector of the Kolozsvár school, noted thathe was explaining the doctrine of the Trinity in the traditional way and corrected.  Károli resented the interference and, now confirmed in his previous suspicion of Dávid’s orthodoxy, he reported the incident to Mélius, Reformed Superintendent at Debreczen, the centre of Calvinism in eastern Hungary. In order to stem the rising heresy, the two now began an open attack upon Biandrata and Dávid.12 Mélius had good cause to fear the new heresy, for it had already crept into eastern Hungary from abroad, and had caused him serious trouble five years before. One Thomas Aran of Köröspeterd had about 1558 written a book denying the Trinity, and in 1561 he began to preach his doctrine openly at Debreczen. In a five-day public debate before a great congregation he pressed Mélius hard, though finally forced to confess defeat and sign a recantation.13  He afterwards became active among the Unitarians in Transylvania.

Interest in the question of doctrine had now become so wide and deep that a public discussion was called for. In the era of the Reformation public debates of important questions were as popular as tournaments and jousts had formerly been; and no subjects made a more lively appeal than those of religion. Debates were carefully planned, theses to be defended were published in advance, officers from both sides were chosen to preside, champions confronted each other often for days at a time, and the auditors pronounced their verdict, which though it might settle nothing was taken as a measure of approval or disapproval.  Dávid, therefore, as Superintendent, with the assent of the King, ordered a disputation and called a synod to meet at Torda (later for general convenience changed to Gyulafehérvár), February 24, 1566, to discuss the Trinity and related doctrines.14 This was the first public discussion of the question in Transylvania, and the beginning of the bitter Unitarian controversy. The discussion was very heated, and many questions were aroused to be settled later.15 Biandrata and Dávid here set forth several propositions bearing on the questions in dispute, and left them for the ministers to reflect upon for some weeks until May 19, when Dávid called a general synod of all the Hungarian min­isters at Maros-Vasárhely.16 In the intervening period two preliminary meetings were held. In a provincial synod at Torda on March 15, some of the ministers, led by Biandrata and Dávid, presented a brief con­fession about the Trinity, giving a simple scriptural statement as to Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but disowning the scholastic terms associated with it; while Biandrata offered seven propositions putting the given doctrines both positively and negatively, in contrasted theses and antitheses. In another synod at Gyulafehévár on April 25 in the presence of the King, these were offered for the judgment of the ministers that had come from Hungary. The latter offered their criticisms (limitationes) on the propositions. Finally, at a synod at Maros-Vásárhely on May 19, a Consensus was adopted in the name of the Hungarian pastors in Transylvania. The essential documents were with the approval of the King then published for general circulation.17

It appears from reading the proceedings in this protracted debate that on both sides there was a sincere effort to arrive at a statement of the doctrine about God that would be acceptable to both parties, and to avoid a further schism if it were in good conscience possible. Biandrata in his Theses largely accommodated himself to the traditional expressions of the creeds; and in his Antitheses he avoided offensive language, calling his opponents nothing worse than Sophists. The pastors from Hungary on their part approved or conceded nearly all that Biandrata proposed; that is, agreed with him as far as he went. If they would have preferred to go further, and to retain the doctrinal terms that they now avoided, they did not betray the fact. Whether Biandrata on the other hand had not yet thought his position out completely, and was simply practicing a politic reserve until he might be surer of the next move, may perhaps be debated. At all events the questions at issue had been only postponed, but by no means settled, as no one knew better than Mélius. All these proceedings were of course in the bosom of the Reformed Churches of Transylvania, over which Dávid still presided as Superintendent; and the separation of those inclined to Unitarian views was yet in the future.

During this same period Mé1ius, who had been concerned with developments in Transylvania only as a deeply interested neighbor from an adjoining district, was bending all his energies to keep the rising heresy from spreading in his own district, which comprised the counties in Upper Hungary lying between the Tisza and Transylvania. Antitrinitarian views had begun to spread widely in these counties, and it is said that they would have prevailed but for the Opposition of the landed proprietors.18 At just this time the mischief seemed to center in a pastor named Lukas Égri, or Agriensis (i.e., of Égér, or Erlau). He was a native of the town whose name he bore, had studied at Wittenberg, and had early known Dávid at Kolozsvár, but had returned to Égér on account of the climate. By 1566 he had come, to be regarded as the leader of those that were unsound as to the deity of Christ, and was put on his defence at a synod at Göncz in January, 1566, where he presented a statement of his faith. On its face it seems straightforward and orthodox; but his suspicious judges found it ambiguous and deceitful on nearly every point. No action was taken, but early the next year Mélius got the synod at Debreczen to subscribe the new Helvetic Confession as a bar to heresy; and resolutions defending the orthodox doctrine of God and condemning the new heresies were considered both there and a year later at a synod at Szikszó. Meanwhile a petition in the name of the church was presented to General Lazarus Schwendi, commander of Maximilian’s armies and a Lutheran, asking that he attend the next synod and use his authority against any in Hungary found infected with Arianism, especially Lukas Égri. The synod was called by authority of the General at Kassa in January, 1568. Égri presented his statement of faith in twenty-seven articles, which the minis­ters answered and condemned article by article, and they then adopted and subscribed an orthodox confession; whereupon Égri was found guilty of heresy, and by authority of the General was imprisoned at Kassa for more than five years. Argument in this form at length proved convincing, for in 1570 Égri subscribed an undeniably orthodox confession of faith. Nothing further is recorded of him.19

Though the debates at the four synods in 1566 had been warm, the Consensus adopted was inconclusive, for it left too many terms undefined. While designed if possible to be acceptable to both parties in the church it fell short of satisfying either; and although the orthodox claimed that they had won the victory, Mélius was eager for further discussion and petitioned the King to appoint one. Biandrata however felt the need for further groundwork and secured a postponement. While Mélius therefore, as just related, was occupied in strengthening the defences of orthodoxy in the neighboring counties of Upper Hungary, Biandrata and Dávid were actively preparing the ground for further advance in Transylvania. The chief means used were the press with which the King had provided them, and which they employed to lay their views before a larger public for thoughtful consideration. The first book to be published was one on The False and True Knowledge of God, a solid volume of 188 leaves.20 While the work is ostensibly the joint product of several, the responsible editors were evidently Bian­drata and Dávid.21 It consists of two books, in twenty-four chapters, the first book on the false and the second on the true knowledge of God; and these are presented only as skirmishes preliminary to what may follow. Both the negative and the positive parts of the work are seriously argued, and on the whole in good spirit; first pointing out unsparingly the objections to the doctrine of the Trinity, and then setting forth what the writers regard as the true scriptural doctrine of God and Christ when the texts are rightly understood. In many places the influence of Servetus is unmistakable.

What the effect of the work as a whole may have been is not clear; but there was one chapter that produced a tremendous sensation and a profound shock. It presented with suitable comments eight pictures designed to give visible representations of the Trinity.22The orthodox at once took these as ‘dreadful and abominable pictures,’ intended to show that ‘the Trinity is not unlike the fabled three-headed Cerberus, or the many-headed Hydra, more monstrous than the Gorgon,’23 and thus to hold the doctrine up to ridicule. It is true that the editors entitled this chapter De horrendis simulachris Deum Trinum et Unum adumbrantibus; but the fact was that instead of having been invented in profane mockery by the authors they were all taken from unexceptionable orthodox sources, chiefly paintings or sculptures in existing churches, through which artists had done their best to make the holy mystery intelligible to common folk. Mélius and his party were unwilling to endorse these pictures as fair representations of the Trinity in which they believed, and were scandalised beyond measure to have their central dogma thus made a popular laughing-stock, and were quick to hurl back charges of irreverent blasphemy and mockery of the Christian religion.24

At length toward the end of the year Mélius, disturbed at the rapid spread of the heresy, and without waiting longer for a general synod to be called, issued to the ministers in Hungary a call for a synod to be held at Debreczen February 2, 1568, to take action against the heresies of Sabellius, Arius, Paul of Samosata, Photinus and their like. He claimed that their adversaries in Transylvania had already been confuted in the synods of the past year, and he now challenged them to appear or else be proclaimed as defeated.25 Biandrata however suspected a plot to seize and imprison his party as heretics, once they were found in foreign territory, as had lately been the case with Égri, and he did not accept the challenge.26 Early in the next year, however, the King appointed a general synod to be held at Torda, though for greater convenience the place was later changed to Gyula­fehérvár, March 3, 1568. The ministers of the Hungarian churches in Transylvania defending the Unity of God invited the Trinitarian ministers of Upper and Lower Hungary (including the Lutheran Saxons) to assist at a disputation between Dávid, Biandrata and their followers and the Trinitarian ministers. Seventeen theses were proposed for discussion, which offered various objections to the doctrine of the Trinity. The King, now deeply interested in questions of religion, greatly enjoyed disputations and sometimes took part in them, firmly believing that sober argument was the best way to bring out the truth on points as to which there was disagreement. The disputation was held in the great hall of the palace in the presence of him and all his court, and it lasted ten days, beginning at five o’clock in the morning. It was the greatest debate in the entire history of Unitarianism. The cardinal points of the whole controversy, to which all others were subordinate, was whether the doctrines of the Trinity and the eternal deity of Christ were taught in the Scriptures.27

The atmosphere was tense with excitement, and feelings ran high; but after some days of prolonged haggling, betraying mutual suspicion and distrust, conditions of the debate were agreed upon which were designed to ensure that speakers should be held to the point, and should refrain from abusive language, and that accurate records should be made. Judges were appointed, an equal number from each side. Dávid, Biandrata and three of the leading ministers on the one side were opposed by Mélius, Károli and four other ministers on the other.28 Speakers from the two sides spoke alternately, and the debate was carried on in the traditional way in as good order as could be expected at the time and in the circumstances, though sometimes interrupted by heckling questions or outbursts of angry temper. The argument centred mostly on the interpretation of the relevant Scripture texts, with little reference to the Creeds or the Fathers. Biandrata at first took an active part, but later showed himself poorly equipped for discussing doctrinal subleties with trained theologians; and confessing that he was not a theologian but a physician he retired into the background, leaving the main part to Dávid. By the ninth day many of the orthodox brethren were tired of the tedious debate, or had lost heart in it when it seemed to make no progress, and began to leave for home. The two Trinitarian Superintendents also asked leave to go. The King did not grant this, but at the end of the tenth day he adjourned the disputation. He gave no judgment, but took the case under consideration until in the course of time learned men should pronounce fuller and clearer opinions on so intricate a subject.29 Meantime both sides were strictly charged, under severe penalty, not to abuse or quarrel with each other orally or in writing, and were recommended to be instant in prayer. The orthodox historian sums up the whole episode in the often quoted laconic statement that ‘the disputation began with heat, lasted not too temperately for ten days, and closed without any profit accruing to the church of Christ.’ 30

The year had begun auspiciously for the liberal party, for even before the disputation just mentioned the Diet at Torda in January renewed the decree of toleration passed in 1557 and confirmed in 1563, declaring that ‘in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well; if not, no one shall compel them, but they shall keep the preachers whose doctrine they approve. Therefore none of the Superintendents or others shall annoy or abuse the preachers on account of their religion, according to the previous constitutions, or allow any to be imprisoned or be punished by removal from his post on account of his teaching, for faith is the gift of God,31 this comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of God.’32 This decree practically legalized Unitarianism in Transylvania. Despite the contrary claim of Mélius and his friends, the disputation at Gyulafehévár was generally regarded as a signal victory for Dávid and his followers. The news of it reached Kolozsvár before him, and on his return thither a great throng of his people were awaiting him where the Torda road enters the town, and hailed the victor with loud acclamations. The tradition is that he thereupon mounted a large boulder at the street corner and proclaimed the simple unity of God to them with such persuasive eloquence that they took him on their shoulders and bore him to the great church in the square to continue the theme, and that the whole city accepted the Unitarian faith then and there.33 Good use was made of the next few months to introduce the new teaching to a wider public through print. Apart from four important books of Dávid published in the preceding year, five brief ones in Latin and one in Hungarian appeared in I568,34 and two in Hungarian by his colleague Stephen Basilius, minister of the Saxon Unitarian church at Kolozsvár. All these are more or less apologetic, in view of steady attacks by Mélius and his followers, which were not only full of misrepresentation of the views of the ‘innovators’ as they were called, but also were extremely vituperative and sanguinary, since the death penalty for heretics was repeatedly hinted at or even urged.

Biandrata and Dávid were not satisfied to have their cause rest with the victory won at Gyulafehérvár. They and their followers were suffering too much abuse from the slanders of their adversaries, ministers sympathizing with them were being persecuted or deprived of their positions unless they would violate their consciences, and many earnest souls were unsettled in their faith for want of being sufficiently enlightened. A contemporary chronicle records that at this period all Transylvania was in confusion of mind about religion, and that the common people, attracted now by one argument and now by another, knew not what to believe.35 It was proposed therefore to carry the campaign into the enemy’s territory, and to have a disputation conducted in Hungarian, which the common people might understand, since the previous ones had been in Latin, hence intelligible only to the well educated. The King granted the desired authority, and a call was therefore issued to the ministers of the Reformed churches in Hungary to meet on October 10, 1569 (the date was by request of Mélius deferred for ten days more), at Várad,36 to debate a series of propositions on subjects in controversy. The Reformed ministers in the Hungarian counties were not subject to Dávid’s authority, since they had their own Superintendent in Mélius of Debreczen; but, though they were not too well pleased with the proposal and demurred, they accepted it. There was a widespread rumor that at the meeting at Várad there was to be a general and final action on the questions at issue,37 and the orthodox party in the church would have been glad to have it held as a Synod with ecclesiastical authority; but the King, seeing that the question lay between two different bodies among his people, chose to have it held subject to his own supervision, under his chosen policy of free and tolerant discussion as the best means of reaching the truth. As it was to be a great national debate, it was attended by the King and all his court, the military heroes of his armies, and other magnates, as well as by Dávid, Mélius, and ministers from both sides of the Tisza. The King acted as judge, and the presiding officer was Gáspár Békés, High Chamberlain and chief counselor of the King.

The chief disputants were Dávid as Superintendent and court preacher, Heltai (who since the last disputation had come over to his side) and Basilius, both preachers at Kolozsvár, and three others. Biandrata, since he did not speak Hungarian, took no part. Opposing them were Mélius as minister at Debreczen and Superintendent of the Hungarian Reformed churches, Károli preacher at Virad, and five others. The debate lasted six full days, and was restricted to these four points: Who is the one God? Who is the only-begotten Son of God the Father? Of the Holy Spirit; Of the divinity of Christ. The debate proceeded on the whole decently enough, though marred by inevitable outbursts of feeling; but Békés had several times to call Mélius to order, and on the third day, when the latter had burst out in personal invective against Dávid, the King sharply reproved him. Again two days later when Mélius seemed merely to befog the issue with sophistry, the King declared, ‘Inasmuch as we know that faith is the gift of God, and that conscience can not be forced, if one can not comply with these conditions, let him go beyond the Tisza’ i.e., leave this country and go to Hungary. Dávid then made a powerful speech in defence of his own side and of liberty of conscience, and made the usual arguments against the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ as unscriptural and unreasonable. When the debate was concluded the King made a closing address, giving reasons why it had been ordered, and expressing regret that it had not accomplished its purpose. In giving judgment he ordered that the Unitarians be not interfered with; and Mélius was charged not to play the Pope, nor remove ministers or burn their books, nor force any one to accept his creed, ‘since we demand that in our dominions there shall be freedom of conscience.’38 Thus ended the last important debate between the two parties in the Reformed Church in Transylvania.39 Henceforth they drew more and more apart. Any later debates were only of local interest.40

After the disputation at Várad, as the Unitarian cause had evidently won the field in Transylvania, the fires of controversy died down, and the death of both King John and Mélius within a year or two decidedly changed the face of affairs. In addition to the works already mentioned, Dávid therefore published only one more of importance.41 In 1569, whether before or after Várad does not appear, there came from the press at Alba Julia a dual work, in two books, entitled respectively De Regno Christi, and De Regno Antichristi, each followed by a tract on infant baptism, which was opposed. This work is noteworthy for the fact that (as long ago noted by Uzoni, Historia, i, 217) it is in great measure merely a reprint of Servetus’s Christianismi Restitutio, of which Biandrata evidently possessed a copy.42The formative influence of Servetus upon Unitarianism in Transylvania in the time of Biandrata and Dávid, as already noted, was thus strongly marked.

The effect of the Várad disputation upon the religion of Transylvania was immediate and profound. The King, his High Chamberlain Békés, and many of the court showed open sympathy with Dávid as the debate proceeded, and the majority of the congregation approved. The King’s chief ministers, many of the leading men of the country, magnates and wealthy nobles followed within a brief space of time; and the tradition is that in a single day at Gyulafehérvár seven members of the King’s Council changed their religion. Throughout the land large numbers of the common people were content without question to follow the example of their chief ruler, doubtless knowing little and caring less about the technical points of theology in debate, but presumably feeling that he had good grounds for his decision; though the simplicity of the new doctrine, its apparent agreement with Scripture, and its accepted rallying-cry, ‘God is one,’ must have been attractive to them. Progress was so rapid that within the next year almost the whole city of Kolozsvár, thanks to the vigorous work of Sommer, Rector of the school, was seen to have gone over to the new movement; whereat Kolozsvár was forthwith excluded in disgust from the number of the seven Saxon free cities, and Szászváros was substituted. In the country at large also many of the Hungarian and Szekler churches followed the lead of Kolozsvár, so that the new religion soon held the first place in Transylvania.43This sweeping spread of the new religion is abundantly attested not only by its own writers but also by members of other confessions. Thus, not without bitterness, the Lutheran historian Haner, and the Catholics Istvánffi and Illia, complained that no one was valued at court, nor given high office or honor, unless he were an Arian, and that for this reason not a few were induced to adopt the now fashionable faith.44

The question indeed naturally suggests itself, how much real significance there can have been in these mass conversions of whole communities in a brief space of time; whether they indicated a genuine change of deep religious convictions and were anything more than the superficial following of a new fashion. However, in the history of the Reformation they were neither unique or new. We have seen in the preceding chapter how all Transylvania changed from Catholic to Protestant within a very few years, so that hardly a Catholic was left in the whole country; and it is recorded that Hermannstadt made a clean sweep of the old faith in three days. Again, a generation later, a change hardly less rapid swept most of the Hungarian and Szekler population from Lutheranism into Calvinism. Both these rapid changes of whole populations proved deep and permanent, not the ephemeral action of a fickle crowd. It must be remembered, however, that even the change from Catholic to Lutheran was not the change of an entire religion. Only three or four articles of faith were concerned; and Melanchthon had insisted that there was no change in any essential doctrine. Also the change from Lutheranism to Calvinism involved only the one article concerning the Lord’s Supper: the main body of doctrine was undisturbed. Even so in this latest change, the articles on the Trinity and the eternal divinity of Christ were the only ones in controversy; the rest remained, at least for the present, as they were. The general acceptance of Dávid’s teaching was thus not a revolution, but only a reformation in one or two details. The great body of the Christian religion, the Christian Scriptures, Christian ideals of life and society, Christian habits of public worship, the Christian piety of individuals, Christian moral standards, remained much as they had been. It is this fundamental fact that ensured the permanence of the reform that Dávid instituted. The fashion might change again; for in less than two years after the Várad debate King John died, and his successor professing another religion replaced many of the Unitarians at his court with those of another faith, and within a few years many of their leading men were, for political reasons, put to death. Yet the great body of Dávid’s followers remained stedfast, and for nearly three centuries of almost constant persecution their successors attested the permanence of their loyalty to his faith. The struggle was fierce, but it was fairly won, not by force or threats but by the sober appeal to Scripture and reason. One of their opponents soon afterwards recorded in the archives of the Chapter of the Reformed Church at Megyes that ‘certainly the whole trinitarian Christian world could have furnished no man who could cope with the Unitarians, not in abuse but on grounds of Scripture and reason that could by no means be refuted.’45

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