CHAPTER XVIII

A SPORADIC OUTBREAK OF ANTITRINITARIANISM

AT HEIDELBERG

WE HAVE NOW FINISHED our survey of those that may fairly be reckoned as pioneers of our movement by virtue of their more or less direct relation to its later stages; but there remains an isolated and sporadic case of superficially similar character which deserves record. The pioneers we have thus far considered were all Latins, and their field of activity was Italy or Switzerland. The group now to be mentioned were all Germans, and their theater of action was at Heidelberg. The Palatinate had accepted the Reformation under the form prevalent in Switzerland; and about 1570 Olevian, leader of the church at Heidelberg, was strenuously urging the adoption of a strict discipline like that of Calvin at Geneva. This step was violently opposed by several persons of influence, among them Adam Neuser, first preacher at St. Peter’s church, a man of marked ability, eloquent and popular, but of unstable temperament.1 He at length became so quarrelsome that the Elector was forced to remove him from his conspicuous office and assign him to nominal service at an obscure post. Deeply humiliated and embittered, he now became alienated from the prevailing religion, and began to nourish doubts of its doctrines. He declared that this change in him was not caused by anything that he had read outside the Bible, 2 though it would be strange if he had not already learned something of the views of Antitrinitarians from Poland who were at the University. 3

Neuser won to his views three other preachers of the vicinity, who were discontented with recent tendencies in the church: Johannes Sylvan4 of Ladenburg, Jakob Suter of Weinheim, and Matthias Vehe of Lautern. He told them of the new Unitarian Church in Transylvania under the patronage of the Prince, where they might hope to exercise their ministry under congenial conditions and with ample support from the State. A considerable number of laymen also shared their views. Both Sylvan and Neuser wrote essays sharply attacking the Trinity, and Neuser also drafted a letter to the Sultan, with whose religious views he expressed warm sympathy; and he assured him of wide support in Germany if he should push his conquests so far. His new theological views appear to have been crude and superficial, while his political scheme was too fantastic to deserve serious attention.

The Emperor Maximilian II. was about to hold a Diet at Speyer in June, 1570. Gáspar Békes (of whom we shall hear in connection with our history in Transylvania) was in attendance, as envoy from the Unitarian Prince of Transylvania; and Neuser, Sylvan and Vehe went to seek an interview with him there. Sylvan handed him a letter for Biandrata, who was now directing the Unitarian movement in Transylvania; and Neuser one for the Sultan, though he added later instructions not to forward it. They offered their services to the new church. 5 In order to gain a point in his mission to the Emperor, 6 Bekes unfortunately gave him these letters to read. He reported their contents to the Elector, who was greatly disturbed, and at once gave orders that the four preachers be arrested, and their books and papers seized; though Neuser, having been forewarned, made his escape and set out for Transylvania. The case of the other three was referred to the theologians, who in turn sought counsel in other countries. They judged Neuser and Sylvan guilty of holding and spreading heresies, and of conspiring with the Sultan against the Emperor, and hence worthy of death. The secular councilors were mostly opposed to capital punishment, and delayed action so long that the Elector, growing impatient, and encouraged by the Elector Augustus of Saxony whom he had consulted, took the matter into his own hands, and passed sentence in April, 1572. As Suter and Vehe had evidently been led astray by the other two, they were simply removed from office and banished from the country. Sylvan had now lain in prison at Mannheim well toward two years, and had meantime repented and retracted his errors; but he was nevertheless sentenced to death. The Elector was apparently still reluctant to put to death one that had been his tutor, and it was not until late in December that Sylvan was beheaded in the market-place at Heidelberg. The Elector then salved his conscience by pensioning the wife and son, who had shared his imprisonment.

Of Suter’s later fortunes nothing is known. Vehe, after being released from imprisonment at Speyer, went to East Friesland, and at length, after Latinizing his name as Glirius,7 made his way to Transylvania, where he became Rector of the Unitarian college at Kolozsvár.8 The fortunes of Neuser were more dramatic. After evading arrest with the others he wandered for some weeks, meaning to join the Unitarians in Transylvania, but in Hungary he found his further progress barred. He therefore returned to the Palatinate and gave himself up, counting upon indulgence. 9 Instead, he was at once lodged in prison, whence after six weeks he found means to escape. 10 He now fled to Poland, in the spring of 1571, and soon appeared at Smigiel (Schmiegel), where there was an ‘Arian’ church. Here and at the neighboring town of Koscian (Kosten) a few miles south-west of Poznan (Posen) his eloquence won him a large following; but when in the spring of 1572 the Parczów edict of 1564 against foreign heretics was invoked against him, he fled in haste, going first to Krakow, and soon afterwards to Koloszvar in Transylvania,11 where again he would have been acceptable as a preacher, but that he did not agree with the preachers in some points of doctrine,12 and that rumors also came that the Elector had taken measures to have him seized and taken back to Heidelberg. He was therefore advised to go to Hungary for safety. There he was detained as a suspicious character; but upon declaring his religious views he was sent to the Sultan at Constantinople, where he formally embraced the Mohammedan faith. Here, if there be any truth at the heart of the legend that rapidly grew up about his last years, he fell into the irregular habits that so easily beset one torn away from family, friends and all wholesome traditions, whose hopes in life have all been frustrated. After some four years he died a wretched death in 1576. The Unitarians in Transylvania are said to have bought his writings for a handsome sum.13 Gerlach, who had conversation with him, reports that Neuser made this statement to him in writing: ‘no one known to me in our time has become an Arian who was not first a Calvinist; . . . therefore if any one fears he may fall into Arianism, he should avoid Calvinism.’ When this report spread, the Lutherans exulted; and Osiander said in triumph that Calvin had been Neuser’s first step on the way to hell. To clear the Calvinistic churches of this charge, the Elector had his theologians publish in 1574 their famous confession as to the Trinity and the person of Christ. 14

Although the episode of Neuser and his companions lies outside the direct stream of the movement we are following, yet it is an added instance of a tendency to burst through the barriers of conventional orthodoxy in an effort to achieve a more complete spiritual freedom and a broader tolerance. First and last there were many other such attempts, which were too obscure in themselves or were too soon checked to leave more than a ripple on the stream of history.15

We have thus far been engaged with a period of our movement in which it embraced only individuals acting separately, or at most a few small and unrelated groups. Save for the single council in 1550, we have recorded no attempt at concerted action. The reason for this fact has been obvious. Any considerable variation from the received standard in religious belief and practice was by Catholics and Protestants alike regarded with grave suspicion, and doubt or denial of any of the fundamental doctrines of the creeds was supposed to endanger the eternal welfare of immortal souls. The spreading of such heresies was, in theory, deemed to be as much worse than murder as the soul is of more value than the body; and there were all too many in religious or civil authority that accepted this view literally and were willing to follow it out to its logical practical consequences. In such circumstances, only brave and daring spirits would venture to risk all manner of punishment, even unto death, in vindication of freedom of belief and conscience; and those that valued their lives or their freedom were driven to ways of secrecy, and to equivocations in language, for practicing which there is little excuse or justification to-day, but for which they in their time have been unfairly reproached, seeing what alternative lay before them.

These hardy pioneers were, with one or two exceptions, Italians, sons of the enlightened Humanism of the Renaissance. They were a small company in all, strong by the acuteness, boldness and independence of their thinking, their refined culture, their individual prestige; but they did not appeal to the popular ear, nor, save in the case of Ochino, did they succeed in attracting the masses. They were, it has been well said, generals without an army. There was no acknowledged leader of their thought, still less of their action. Servetus, Gribaldi and Ochino were strong and independent thinkers, but they left no well wrought system of doctrine; and though each of them influenced a few followers, none of them left a school to develop and carry on his teaching. Before their embryonic efforts could develop into a mature and permanent movement in religious history, two conditions were required that had hitherto been lacking. There must be tolerant laws, which would guarantee full freedom of thought and conscience, and reasonable liberty in speech and teaching; and there must be competent intellectual leadership by some one that could state their religious thought in a consistent and well-rounded system of doctrine, strong for both defence and attack, which could enter the lists in competition with the systems of Melanchthon and Calvin. These two conditions were to be met at about the same time in Poland under Faustus Socinus, and in Transylvania under Francis David. The further development of the movement under these conditions and in these two lands will occupy the two following divisions of this history.

A point has now been reached where it is appropriate to estimate the progress thus far achieved. In the introductory chapter the movement whose development we are following was defined as fundamentally characterized by its steadily increasing adherence to three leading principles in religion: entire freedom from bondage to traditional creeds or confessions, confident reliance upon reason as the ultimate seat of authority, and an attitude of generous tolerance of differing views. How far did the pioneers of whom we have spoken conform to these three principles? To the first they were conspicuously true. Indeed, their most striking superficial characteristic was their refusal to acknowledge the authority of existing creeds and their denial of some of their leading doctrines. This constituted the formal offence that brought prosecution and punishment upon them. If when hard pressed they sometimes conformed so far as to seem to accept the phraseology of the creeds, they still asserted their independence of mind by placing on them interpretations that were by no means the accepted ones.

To the second principle they showed a more wavering adherence. They still accepted Scripture and its teachings as the word of God, and hence of supreme authority; but they interpreted it in accordance with reason, even at the cost of constructions that at times seem strangely forced. The question whether the Scriptures when fairly interpreted could ever conflict with reason had hardly arisen, and would certainly have received a negative answer. If doctrines of the creeds were rejected, it was on the ground that they were not scriptural, or not reasonable, or both. It remained for a later period squarely to accept reason, in any case of conflict, as of higher authority than even Scripture.

It was the principle of tolerance that was slowest in developing. Both the orthodox and the heretical considered right beliefs as a matter of highest importance. Neither could look with indifference on what they regarded as errors in doctrine. Both Servetus and Gentile seem to have regarded the death penalty as allowable for punishing those whose doctrines are demonstrably false. It was long before it was generally accepted that false doctrine is best overcome not by force but by calm reasoning; and it was not until men had ceased seriously to believe that the salvation of their souls really depended upon their acceptance of certain doctrinal statements, that they could with clear conscience feel tolerant of beliefs in others that they considered to be untrue. The body of this history will have its main significance from tracing the steps by which, under the principle of perfect spiritual freedom, men have come more clearly to appreciate the value of the guiding light of reason in the search for religious truth, and more generously to practice that tolerance of spirit which allows that as each man is by nature fallible, so each must struggle for truth in his own way and by his own lights and learn by his own mistakes, no less than by the help of others in his search.

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