POLAND: THE EARLY REFORMATION
IF WE MAY now pause for a moment at the threshold of a new division of the history whose course we are following, and make a brief survey of the ground thus far traversed, and if we inquire what progress has been achieved from a condition in which freedom of thought and of teaching in religion was narrowly limited by ossified traditions from the past, the use of reason in religion was avoided and opposed as tending to undermine religious faith, and mutual tolerance of different views or practices in religion was dreaded as opening the door to infinite error, toward a condition in which men should enjoy entire freedom of thought and teaching in religion, should be at liberty to make full use of reason as perhaps the best available criterion of religious truth, and should exercise generous tolerance of differences as the best guarantee of progress in religion, it must be confessed that little solid ground has thus far been won. For we have been concerned not with a coherent and organized movement, but only with individuals more or less independent of one another, and widely separated in time and space. Each of these, as a pioneer explorer of new fields, of course made his own contribution to the movement, and had his own limited sphere of influence, as he questioned or criticized accepted modes of thought and traditions of practice, in the effort to arrive at a purer, truer and more acceptable system of the Christian religion; but each had to face almost alone the resistance of the consolidated forces of a hostile world, Catholic or Protestant, already firmly committed to a system assumed and sincerely believed to be divinely ordained, infinitely important, and scarcely susceptible of improvement or of any change save for the worse.
Of the daring spirits that, in the first generation of the Protestant reformation, ventured thus to transgress the established limits of Christian thought and usage, some, like Servetus, Gentile and Sylvan, forfeited their lives rather than be untrue to their honest convictions by denying what they felt to be the truth; others, like Campanus and Neuser, had trial of bonds and imprisonment; yet others, like Kautz and Ochino, being banished were forced to go out, not knowing whither they went; some, like Denck, Gribaldi and Castellio, were chased from pillar to post or hounded to their death; some, like Biandrata and Alciati, anticipating the trouble that was sure to overtake them, fled from it before the storm could burst; while others, like Cellarius, Laelius Socinus and Curioni, taking better counsel of worldly prudence, cautiously either concealed their thoughts or veiled them under language vague and equivocal, thus managing to save intact their liberty of person at the expense of freedom of speech and influence. It is thus easy to see that there was little better hope in Protestant lands than in Catholic for the development of a more liberal type of religion. Switzerland, Germany and France were effectively closed to it; and the cry of heretic raised against any innovator was in itself enough to make his cause be by most prejudged and condemned unheard. The liberal movement in Protestantism, whose course we have set out to explore, would have been smothered in its infancy had there not happened to be two lands remote from the western centres of the Reformation, in which comparatively tolerant governments for a time allowed it something like an even chance to survive and spread alongside the more conservative following of Luther, Calvin and Hus. These two lands were Poland and Transylvania. The movement in each of these rose in the same generation, and for its first century the two ran parallel in their development and mutual interests. That in Transylvania has had an unbroken though somewhat isolated history down to the present day, while that in Poland was persecuted out of existence at the end of a century; but the latter has had so significant an influence on the course of religious thought and life in Europe and America that it claims our first attention. We are therefore about to follow the rise, spread, decline and tragic end in Poland of the religious movement that eventually came to be best known as Socinianism.
Poland in the sixteenth century, when our history first becomes concerned with it, was one of the principal States of Europe, ranking next after France, the German Empire, and England. A third larger than France, and a little larger than the American State of Texas, it then stood at its greatest geographical extent and at the summit of its power and prosperity. Its population of some twenty millions was predominantly of that great Slavic stock which pressing from the East has for centuries disputed the possession of eastern central Europe with the peoples farther west. Directly or indirectly they were mostly devoted to agriculture; for the native gentry deemed it undignified to engage in crafts or trade, though in the larger towns there was a strong infiltration of German, Dutch or Scotch origin, engaged as artisans or merchants.
The dominant class were the nobility (szlachta), a body of country gentry, hereditary land-owners, numbering all together about a million,1 and usually living on their landed estates, though the more wealthy often also had town houses in the provincial capitals. While theoretically they all held land, lived on their own estates, and were equal in rank and privileges, yet actually half of them had become impoverished, and either worked their own little farms like peasants, or quite landless stood in the service of the wealthy, and forfeited some of the privileges of their order. 2 A few possessed vast domains of which they were autocratic lords, and were known as magnates. The nobles were exempt from taxation, though in time of national danger they were bound to give military service, in token of which they usually wore spurs and went girt with a sword; and only they might hold public office or sit in the local diets. Their houses were inviolable, a circumstance which at this period of our history was of importance, for on the estate of a sympathetic noble a heretic might remain safe from arrest. They were inclined to be turbulent individualists, extremely jealous of their traditional privileges, and more studious to retain or extend these in the face of encroachments by the Crown or the Bishops than to subordinate them to the interests of State or Church. The Polish nobility in the sixteenth century were perhaps the best educated and most highly cultivated of any similar class in Europe. At the first congress of Vienna in1515 the Emperor Maximilian was astonished to find in his rival, King Sigismund I. of Poland, a humanist as distinguished as himself, and in his entourage a company of highly cultivated gentlemen; and when envoys of Poland in 1573 went to Paris to offer their crown to Henry of Valois, they are said to have excited general admiration for their learning and accomplishments and for the elegance of their manners. 3 By the middle of the sixteenth century the culture of the nobility was becoming Latin rather than Slavic or Teutonic. A strong current of Italian influence was experienced after the marriage (1519) of King Sigismund I. with Bona, daughter of Giovanni Galeazzo Sforza, Duke of Milan, noted for her beauty and accomplishments. A crowd of Italian courtiers, scholars and artists followed in her train, and the capital at Krakow (Cracow) was adorned with noble specimens of architecture in the style of the Italian Renaissance.
At the other end of the social scale from the nobles were the peasants, who had no privileges, were bound to the soil on which they lived, and might not leave it without permission of the lord of the estate, who even held over them the power of life and death. Bound to do forced labor several days each week, they might not own land themselves, and were virtually slaves. 4
The country in its greatest extent consisted of the old Kingdom of Poland (made up of the two major geographical divisions of Great Poland in the west and Little Poland in the southeast) and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the northeast. These two, after a series of approaches (following 1386, when Jagiello, Grand Duke of Lithuania, married a Polish princess and became King of Poland), were finally united as a common republic under one crown and with one Diet by the Union of Lublin in 1569. These three larger divisions were divided for administrative purposes into more than thirty subdivisions known as palatinates (wojewodztwa), each administered by a hereditary chief called Palatine (wojewoda, or vaivode), and the palatinates again into over eighty castellanies administered by Castellans. The traditional form of society in Poland was feudal, but the government was a limited constitutional monarchy of mixed character. 5 In theory a democracy of land-holders, it was actually an aristocracy of the higher nobility. The State was administered as a federation of palatinates with a King at the head of all; and since after 1572 the King was elected, the later Poles often liked to call their nation a republic.
Next to the King in the administration came the Senate. This was not, as the name might seem to suggest, the upper house of the national legislature, but rather a sort of large Privy Council which the King consulted, and whose approval he required, on all important matters. As constituted by the Union of Lublin it was composed of 139 members (later enlarged), appointed by the King for life. Besides ten of the highest ministers of state, it consisted of fifteen Archbishops and Bishops, 32 Palatines and 82 Castellans. The Archbishop of Gniezno (Gnesen) presided, and in all proceedings the Bishops took precedence of the lay Senators. Though it could not veto or annul the acts of the Diet, from which it sat separate, the Senate freely used its advisory power, and it had great influence in the affairs of the realm. As the higher clergy in it were always Catholic, the Senate could be relied upon to give the cause of the Church weighty support even when, as in 1572, there were only two Catholics among the lay Senators.
By far the most important and influential branch of the national government, and its effective legislative arm, was the Diet (sejm). This was a representative body roughly corresponding to the Chamber of Deputies in western parliamentary governments. It ordinarily numbered 200, with a prescribed representation from each Palatinate; and the members were chosen by the provincial diets (sejmiki) from the great body of the lesser nobility, those of the ‘equestrian order’ as distinguished from the nobles of senatorial rank. The Diet met when summoned by the King, most often in the autumn or the winter of each year, and its sessions normally lasted six weeks. Before the Union of Lublin sessions were held at various places, oftenest at Piotrkow, but afterwards generally at the new capital, Warsaw. At the end of the session the Senators and Deputies met jointly for final consultation; and when the body of laws passed had been collectively agreed to, they were subscribed by all the members and the King, and were then known as the Constitution. Such was the country and such were its institutions as far as they need be known in order to furnish the background required for a clear understanding of the history we are next to follow.6
Although missionaries had already preached the Christian religion in Poland for nearly a century, Poland itself first formally accepted Christianity upon the conversion of King Mieszko (Mieczyslaw) I. In 965, while Lithuania did so upon its union with Poland in 1386. The inhabitants of the land, however, long clung to remnants of their old pagan religion, and it was longer yet before the authority of the Roman Church was fully accepted. Contests between the clergy and the secular power, between the Pope and the Crown, were frequent, as the King insisted on his right to name his own Bishops. Worship in the Polish tongue instead of the Church’s Latin was common to the end of the fifteenth century, and marriage of priests was practiced in Poland long after it had been successfully forbidden elsewhere. With old heresy laws7 slumbering on the statute books, the heretical doctrines of the Waldenses became current from the twelfth century on, while the teachings of Jan Hus were wide-spread in the fifteenth and the first half of the sixteenth century. An Inquisition had been established in the fourteenth century to stamp out heresy, yet only one conspicuous auto da fe took place, when five Hussite preachers were publicly burned in 1439; and though severe repressive laws against heresy were passed by church synods and by the national Diet, they remained for the most part dead letters. By the middle of the fifteenth century serious opposition to the increasing claims and aggressions of the Church had arisen among the nobles; and at the Diet of 1459 Jan Ostror6g, a noble of great learning and high rank, presented a remarkable series of proposals asserting the sovereignty of the State as not subject to Rome, and pro testing against the abuses and exactions of the Church, and the gross corruptions of the clergy.
Thus even before Luther the stage was well set for reforming the Church whenever a favorable juncture should present itself. The very temper and native character of the people were calculated to foster such a movement; for the spirit of the Polish noble was restless and adventurous, alert to catch at new ideas and curious to try new experiments. By inherited tradition he was a pronounced individualist, jealous of his liberties and watchful against encroachments on his rights. Even in religion he did not take kindly to acknowledging the supremacy of a foreign authority; and for him to be summoned for trial and sentence before a church court deriving its powers from a foreign source in Rome seemed to him a gross violation of his traditional freedom. Under these conditions the Catholic Church had by the end of the fifteenth century largely lost its real hold in Poland. Indeed, doubtless from geographical reasons, the Catholic clergy had never succeeded in gaining such power and independence there as in the western countries of Europe.
In the revolt from the Church a variety of distinct factors co-operated. One of the most conspicuous of these was its alarming growth in wealth and secular power, for this inevitably resulted in a growing conflict between the Bishops and the nobility. The Church in Poland had grown enormously wealthy by gifts from the Crown and from pious individuals. After the King’s estates, the largest ones were those of the Bishops and the monasteries. It has been estimated that in the sixteenth century one third of the entire landed property of the country was in the hands of the Church.8 Besides all this, church estates were exempt from public burdens, while on the other hand the clergy were entitled to one tenth of the nobles’ income from their estates, and to one tenth also from the peasantry. In the sixteenth century they are estimated to have absorbed half of the total national income. 9 In this way the Bishops had not only greatly encroached on the power and privileges of the nobles, but had themselves become almost completely secularized, and generally indifferent to the spiritual welfare of the Church. The remark attributed to Bishop Zebrzydowski of Kráków, ‘Believe even in a goat if you like, provided you only pay me my tithes,’ 10 was regarded as typical.
Along with this extreme worldliness and luxury, the moral life of many of both the higher and the lower clergy was notoriously corrupt, uncorrected and unrebuked by those in authority; and from the coming of Queen Bona, and with her encouragement, simony was freely employed in securing ecclesiastical preferments. Such a condition in the Church religiously and morally, added to the conflicts economic and social that were steadily growing more aggravated, provided fertile soil for the seeds of the Protestant Reformation, by which the Bohemian and German population dwelling in the west of Poland were already influenced. With the University at Krakow at a low ebb in the early sixteenth century, the young nobles that could afford it went abroad for their higher studies, and in the Protestant universities at Wittenberg, Marburg, Heidelberg, Strassburg, Basel and Zurich became acquainted with the new religious doctrines of the Protestants; while those that resorted to such Italian centres of learning as Padua became saturated with the emancipating spirit of Italian Humanism. Returning home they helped bring to the surface the latent wide-spread desire for a new religion, insisting less on dogma and ceremonial and more on the fundamentals of Christian life and character, more clearly founded on Scripture, independent of Rome and its Bishops with their worldliness and luxury — in short, a Polish national church, worshiping in the national language, granting communion in both kinds, inclusive of both Roman and Greek Catholics, and with the King at its head.
The desire for a national Synod or council of the Church, which should in earnest take up the work of reform, was strong and wide spread; but the King hesitated to take so decisive a step, which might cause serious division among his people, while Rome, fearing lest such a movement might end in alienating Poland from the Church, as had lately happened in England, strove to delay action by vague promises of a general reforming council of the whole Church in all Europe. The result was that before anything effective could be accomplished for reform from within, the Protestant Reformation entered Poland from without. The new faith was introduced in the several parts of Poland in several different forms: the Evangelical Church (followers of Luther), the Bohemian Brethren (followers of Jan Hus), and the Reformed Church (followers of Calvin). The earliest Protestant movements were in Polish Prussia which, with a population strongly German, became overwhelmingly Lutheran. For a time Lutheranism spread rapidly also in Lithuania, though in the next generation it became instead thoroughly Calvinistic, under the influence of Prince Nicholas Radziwill, who while studying abroad had accepted Protestant views, and was followed by the great majority of the gentry. It also won many followers in Great Poland, where Calvinists on the other hand were few. The Bohemian Brethren had their greatest strength in Great Poland. Besides its conquest of Lithuania, as just mentioned, Calvinism so fully won Zmudz (Samogitia) that only seven priests were left in the principality;11 but the Reformed Church flourished most of all in Little Poland, where there were but few Lutherans, and where its democratic organization, granting a large voice to the laity, appealed most to the nobles.
With the steady growth of abuses in the Church on the one hand, and on the other the steady stream of students returning from abroad, the wide circulation of the writings of Luther and other Protestants, and a divided and feeble resistance on the part of the Church, the Reformation had quietly spread so far that by the middle of the sixteenth century the nobles of Poland found themselves very largely Protestant. To satisfy the authorities of the Church who saw their cause now in danger, King Sigismund I. indeed haif-heartedly forbade the nobles to send their sons to Germany to study, and prohibited the importation of heretical books, though neither order was much regarded. But when in 1526 Luther’s celebrated adversary, Johann Eck, in dedicating to the King a work against Luther, urged him to imitate Henry VIII. of England in opposing the reformer, the easy-going King replied that Henry might do so, but as for him he begged leave to be king of both sheep and goats. 12
The Protestants had as yet no public houses of worship, but like the early Christians worshiped in private houses, generally in the spacious halls of nobles, where they were secure from molestation. One of the most important of such early Protestant congregations was at Krakow, where large numbers inclined to the doctrines of the Reformation. A place for their worship here was provided for them first in the manor-house at the village of Wola Justowska, about five miles west of town, and later by Jan Bonar, Governor of the castle, in the garden of his home just outside the city wall. Well before this priests here and there, when assured of the protection of noble patrons, abandoned the old ceremonies, preached the new doctrines, married and openly attacked the Church, counting on the indulgence of sympathetic or at least indifferent Bishops, or even setting their discipline at defiance. But the boldest attack on the Roman Church hitherto was when Nicholas Ole owner of the town of Pinczów, 13 an important centre some forty miles north-east of Kráków, encouraged thereto by Stancaro, 14 drove the monks from their monastery on his domain (1550), removed the images from the church and set up reformed worship there. Within a few weeks after Olesnicki’s daring act the King issued an edict against the reformers, and the Bishop of Kráków cited Ole to appear before the Senate and answer for violating the old heresy law of 1424; but he was so stoutly defended by high officials that nothing of importance resulted except Stancaro’s temporary banishment. For a year or two now the Bishops exerted themselves to stamp out heresy by force, and for a time the ministers went into hiding for fear, 15 but the nobles were only roused to more determined resistance.
Coincident with the steadily spreading revolt of priests and nobles on religious grounds, a closely related political struggle was daily gathering force as the nobles sought to secure themselves from criminal prosecution at the hands of the Bishops. For besides the usual courts of the State, the Bishops also had courts of their own. These had originally existed to handle cases of church discipline, but they had with time gradually extended their scope so as to cover various secular matters as well. They exercised what was called ‘ecclesiastical jurisdiction,’ and it fell to the starosts or civil authorities to execute the punishments that the Bishops’ courts decreed. These were often so arbitrary and severe as to arouse intense indignation among the nobles, who felt their rights unjustly invaded. After the death of King Sigismund I. in 1548, the new King Sigismund Augustus, whom the reformers had fondly been hoping to win to their side, began instead to favor their opponents. Thus encouraged, the church synod at Piotrków in 1552 resolved to extirpate heresy by severe persecution. At least one priest was put to death, and other vigorous measures were undertaken; but the nobles united in determined opposition, and public resentment was so strong that the Bishops’ efforts proved largely futile. For as Catholic and Protestant nobles alike were rising in revolt, civil magistrates were little inclined to execute the decrees of the church courts. In the Diet of that same year, the Protestant interest had an overwhelming majority; and while they still left to the Bishops the right to pronounce upon heresy, they succeeded in getting ecclesiastical jurisdiction suspended for a year, so that the decrees of the spiritual courts could no longer be put into effect.
From this time on, the growth of the reformed congregations went on apace. Though the Bishops renewed their efforts at repression it was to little purpose. In 1553 various Lithuanian magnates accepted the Reformation, following Nicholas (the Black) Radziwill, Palatine of Wilno, the most powerful and wealthy man in the Grand Duchy, who had imbibed the reformed doctrines while traveling abroad, and now opened many churches in his territory to reformed worship.16 The temporary arrangement of 1552 was followed at the Diet of 1555 by an Interim which was to remain in force until a national council should be called. By this, religious freedom was insured to commoners and peasants as well as to nobles, ecclesiastical jurisdiction was virtually abolished, and it was among other things provided that each noble might have a clergyman of his own choice, and choose his own form of worship. The Bishops in the Senate would indeed not consent to this arrangement, but the decision of the Diet stood fast and became effective, so that Poland was henceforth for a good while a land of wide religious liberty. The old heresy laws were indeed not repealed; but as they could now no longer be enforced, Protestantism was in practice treated as legal, and enjoyed full freedom of worship.
The reformers, feeling at last secure from serious persecution, now became more active than ever, and energetically set about consolidating and organizing their forces. Their first meeting looking toward organization had been when seven reforming pastors, on Stancaro’s motion, met with him at Pinczow in October, 1550, soon after his escape from the Bishop’s prison, and discussed a reformed order of worship.17 Affairs now progressed rapidly. In November, 1554, they held a formal synod at Slomniki, some fifteen miles northeast of Kráków, which was attended by a large concourse of ministers and nobles.18 There was general discussion as to joining forces with some church already organized, especially that of the Bohemian Brethren, whose doctrine, worship and discipline were much praised. In March, 1555, at Chrzczecice19 Felix Cruciger (Krzyzak was appointed Superintendent of the churches, and several ministers were ordained; and in August of the same year, at a synod at Kozminek20 in Great Poland, a formal union of the two bodies was entered into, and the worship, doctrine and discipline of the Bohemian Brethren were approved.
The heartiness with which these measures of union were at first adopted ere long gave way to more or less dissatisfaction; and in the end the harmonious arrangement reached at Kozminek proved to be not a union of two churches in one, but a federation of two independent bodies. The reformers had no experience to guide them in shaping their new church, and they were free to adopt whatever standard of faith and practice might commend itself to them. They found them selves, however, disposed to follow the Geneva model, on which the Pinczow church had already been formed.21 But what they just now most acutely needed was experienced and competent leadership; and a month later, at a synod at Pinczów,22 they eagerly seized an opportunity to elect a second Superintendent in the person of Dr. Francesco Lismanino. 23
Lismanino was born on the island of Corfu in 1504 of Greek parents who brought him as a boy to Krakow. He finished his studies in Italy, and entered the Franciscan order. Italian friends of his at Queen Bona’s court invited him to return to Krakow, where he soon became popular for his courtly manners and his eloquence as a preacher. His rise was rapid. Appointed Italian preacher at the royal court, he became the Queen’s confessor, and by her influence he was in 1538 made Provincial of his order in Poland. The Queen gave him Ochino’s sermons to read, and procured for him many Protestant books from abroad. In r he succeeded in bringing about a reconciliation of the Queen Mother to the King’s new wife, Barbara Radziwill, in gratitude for which the King promised him the first vacant see in his gift. In 1551, when Laelius Socinus first visited Poland, Lismanino formed an intimate acquaintance with him, made him his guest, and may thus have been influenced in the direction of the Reformation;24 at all events, he enjoyed the King’s close confidence, and used his influence to interest him in a reform of the Church. Thus during three years he used twice a week after dinner to read to him privately from Calvin’s Institutes, 25 and to discuss points of doctrine with him with great freedom. The King therefore determined to send him abroad as his agent in collecting a royal library, but with private instructions also to visit foreign theologians, observe various churches in their organization, worship and administration, and on his return to report all to him personally, apparently with a view to introducing reforms in the Church in Poland. He left Poland in 1553, and made purchases of books and studied religious life in northern Italy, Switzerland, France and Germany. While in Switzerland he was much drawn to the reformed theologians at Zurich, who persuaded him to become an intermediary for furthering the Reformation in Poland. They in turn warmly recommended him to Calvin, who at his suggestion wrote the King (Calvin had already five years before dedicated to him his Commentary on Hebrews, which strongly attacked the Catholic doctrine of the Mass), urging him now to prosecute the work of the Reformation in earnest, and at the same time speaking in high terms of Lismanino.26 Calvin now procured the doctor’s degree for him at the University, and encouraged him to leave the Roman Church, throw off his cowl, and marry a French lady of Geneva. Lismanino sent the King the books he had bought, and rendered his accounts, but did not return as expected to report in person on his observations. Instead he prepared to stay in Switzerland.
At the same time he wrote Cruciger, reporting what he had done. Cruciger must have taken it as an intervention of Providence, for when he broke the glad news to the brethren at Puicz6w in September, 1555, they at once elected Lismanino his co-Superintendent, as above related. Cruciger wrote him in the name of the ministers, urging his acceptance of the call, and asking that they might be recommended to the pious interest of the Swiss ministers, and have their counsel and aid. 27 Several of the nobles wrote him in the same vein, and Alexander Witrelin (Vitrelinus), minister at Pinczów, had also written him of the state of affairs in the new churches. 28
Lismanino accepted the invitation with alacrity, little foreboding what disappointments were to follow for him, and what troubles for the Church; for he was to be an unwitting agent in the outbreak of Antitrinitarianism in it, as we shall see in the next chapter. To pave the way for his return, he urged Calvin to write again to the King, and to nearly a score of influential nobles and clergy. 29 He revisited the Swiss churches to inform himself better as to their doctrine and worship, and setting out for Poland in midwinter, bearing the letters that Calvin had written, he reached his destination at the end of March, 1556.
Lismanino now began to experience the first results of the step he had so rashly taken. For he had quite too confidently counted on the King’s approval, and had aroused his anger instead, as a confidential agent who had broken faith with him. The King in disgust now abandoned any plan he may have entertained for reforming the Church in Poland, and never admitted him to his presence again. The leaders of the new church for their part had expected that Lismanino, by his deep learning and wide experience, through his influential acquaintance, and with his fluency in the language and familiarity with the customs of the Poles, would at once prove a great addition to their cause. They were doomed to disappointment. For he had returned to a country where he no longer had any public standing, since he had already been excommunicated by the Catholic Church, and he was soon to be outlawed by an edict issued in the name of the King, though not by his express direction. Hence he had at once to go into hiding under the protection of a friendly noble and old friend, Ivan Karninski of Alexandrowice, some five miles west of Krakow. 30 It was not safe for him to appear at synods of the young Church, nor could he enter upon his office as its Superintendent, though by correspondence from a distance or by private conferences he did give valued help. Catholic opposition to him as an apostate was so bitter that for a time he was almost on the point of fleeing before it.31 It was more than a year before the intercession of powerful nobles with the King could get his ban lifted. He actually was already in Great Poland on his way back to Switzerland, when the unexpected news reached him that the ban against him was suspended.
While impatiently waiting for Lismanino, the brethren also sought leadership in a yet more important personage. At the Pinczow synod in April, 1556, after general discussion it was enthusiastically voted to call Dr. Jan Laski32 (John a Lasco) to return from Germany and direct their churches in the work of reformation. Laski was born in 1499 of a very distinguished noble family, and was nephew of the Archbishop of Gniezno, Primate and Grand Chancelor of Poland. After finishing his education in Italy, he entered the priesthood and was rapidly advanced in the honors of the Church. Had he been willing to accept the dignity, he might have been Bishop of Kujawy (Cujavia); but he had early become dissatisfied with the condition of the Church. He therefore went abroad and spent several years at Basel with Erasmus, whose intimate friend he became, whose hope that the Church might be reformed from within he shared, and whose library he ultimately acquired. Returning to Poland he labored for ten years for reform, and then gave up, resigned his offices, left the country, and gave himself to the Reformation elsewhere. For three years he labored successfully in organizing the reformed churches in East Friesland. Another three years he spent in London as Superintendent of a church embracing all the foreign Protestants there, the so-called Strangers’ Church, of which we shall hear something in a later division of this history. Driven from England in the Catholic reaction under Mary, he was for yet another three years a wanderer on the Continent, everywhere trying to aid the Reformation and to persuade Protestants of every name to unite against their common Roman foe. He was in fact the only Pole to play an important part in the Reformation outside his own land. It was at this juncture in his life that the reformers at Pinczow called on him to return to Poland, as above related, and assist and direct their movement. He did so, after nearly twenty years’ absence, and arrived at the very end of 1556.
A better man to undertake his difficult task could not have been found. The Catholics exerted themselves with the utmost bitterness to have this ‘butcher of the Church,’ as they called him, outlawed; but the King granted him audience and assured him protection. Though now broken in health by all he had endured, he gave himself unweariedly for a final three years to his critical work, as center and head of the Reformation in Poland. He preached, held synods, forwarded the important project of a Protestant translation of the Bible into Polish (the Bible of Brest, not published until 1563, after his death), developed at Pinczow an academy for the youth of the new church, strove to strengthen the church’s organization and give its doctrines acceptable form, and above all else labored unceasingly at his great design of bringing the three divided sects of Protestants into one united national Polish Reformed Church. Too many obstacles hindered, so that this design was not finally realized until ten years after Laski’s death, when Calvinists, Lutherans and Bohemian Brethren, under the growing pressure of the Catholic reaction, tardily and reluctantly consented to submerge their differences in the Union of Sandomir (Sandomierz) — the consensus Sendomiriensis, 1570 But before his lamented death in 1560 Laski could already count some 160 congregations united by an efficient organization, using a common form of rites and worship, and broadly agreeing in their doctrinal point of view if not in the details of their faith. As the first period of its history came to an end with Laski’s death, the future of the Reformed Church in Poland looked bright, even if not quite cloudless. It was questions of further reform in doctrine, which he had left still unsettled, that were soon, long and sorely to disturb its peace and hamper its progress; and it is these that are to claim our attention in the next stage of our history.
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