THUS FAR we have been concerned only with the earliest stages of Protestantism in Poland, and that only in the type represented by the Calvinism of the Reformed Church. For the movement whose history we are following never, save in a few isolated instances, produced any impression upon Lutheran circles. The Reformed Church of Poland, however, was scarcely organized before symptoms began to appear of a tendency to carry the reform of Christian doctrines much further than the churches in Switzerland under the influence of Calvin had ventured to carry it. For the Protestants of the West, however disposed they may at first have been to be more thorough and more scriptural in framing a new system of doctrine, dared not, in the existing political situation in Europe, risk all they had so hardly won, by giving further and greater doctrinal offence. It was doubtless the part of wisdom in them to stop where they were, and to devote themselves now to fortifying the positions they had taken.

Of the Italian Humanists, however, who sought refuge in Switzerland, not a few, as we have seen, were dissatisfied that the Swiss Reformation had not more thoroughly broken with the Papacy and formed for itself a body of doctrine purely and strictly scriptural. They were desirous of carrying reform further than merely to correct abuses in outward organization and form of worship. The more notable of these, as we shall see, therefore took advantage of the comparatively generous religious liberty that had recently been secured in Poland, to go thither and work for the realization of their ideals. No other country in Europe could have been so hospitable to them. Whatever may have been the attitude of the Catholic Church itself toward differences in religious belief, the Pole before the Reformation had not been a religious bigot. He had for generations been used to seeing Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Jew and Mohammedan live side by side in Poland in comparative peace and friendship. And now that the nobles had won their struggle for liberty to choose their own form of Christianity, the field must have seemed promising for such a reform as they hoped to see.

Even before the Reformation the Catholic Church in Poland gave some signs of criticism of traditional dogmas. Early in the sixteenth century there had been published the so-called Krakow Missal, with a commentary by Cardinal Hugo,1 in which it was explained that any prayer should be directed to the Father or the Son, but never to the Holy Spirit, which is only a gift. This is of course inconsistent with the doctrine of the Trinity, and strangely like the teaching of Servetus and several of his early followers.

But what has often been spoken of as the first instance of Antitrinitarianism in Poland2 is the tragic case of Katharine Weigel. 3 She was wife of Melchior Weigel, a wealthy goldsmith and member of the Kráków Council, and offspring of a noble Polish family. At the age of seventy she had been accused of apostasy to the Jewish religion, but after being convicted and facing punishment she finally recanted and was received back into the Church. Ten years later she was again accused at the instance of Bishop Gamrat of Krakow, recently elevated to his see through the influence of Queen Bona, a man who was compensating for his notorious immoralities by his zeal in hunting heretics. She made a clear confession of an intelligent faith in God, but would not say she believed in Christ as his Son. She defended herself with great ability, but as she could not be brought to change her confession she was judged guilty of blasphemy, and on April 19, 1539, the white-haired old lady of eighty was burned at the stake in the small marketplace (Maly Rynek) at Krakow, going to her death in a spirit worthy of the first Christian martyrs, boldly and cheerfully, as the old historian relates, as though it had been to her wedding. Though her faith was clearly not trinitarian, it is doubtful that she really belongs in the historical stream we are following. For in the chaos of religious thought that was wide-spread in Russia and Poland at the end of the fifteenth and in the first half of the sixteenth century, the Jews were carrying on an active propaganda for their faith, and making so many converts to it that repressive measures were at just this time instituted to check it. It seems most likely that Katharine Weigel was simply a convert to this faith, as at first charged; and this is the more credible since her husband is known to have had active business relations with Jews. 4

A closer and more direct approach to our subject is found in an occurrence of a different sort reported from Krakow in the year 1546, and revealing a significant undercurrent of secret but daring thought in influential Catholic circles at the capital. There was at this time a group ‘of a dozen or more Humanists, learned and distinguished in Church and State, who used to meet privately for discussion of theological matters and of reforms desirable in the Church, often with Lismanino, who seems to have been their leading spirit, or at the houses of members. One evening the company met for dinner at the house of Jan Trzycieski, a learned bookseller and pupil of Erasmus, who had a famous library. Among the guests was a stranger from Holland, who passed under the name of Spiritus.5 While waiting for dinner they amused themselves by examining their host’s books. Spiritus thus fell upon a book of prayers, in which he observed that some were addressed to God the Father, some to God the Son, and some to God the Holy Spirit. What, said he, have you three Gods? To their reply that they had one God in three persons he rejoined with some thought-provoking criticisms, and discussion continued until the subject was changed as they went in to dinner.

The member of the company who left us the report of this incident6 relates that he was deeply impressed by it, and that there were some present in whose minds the question stuck like a barb, and troubled them until it later came to the surface in Poland. The Socinians for their part looked back upon this episode as the historical beginning of their movement in Poland; and as Lismanino and Modrzewski both came to play influential parts in that movement, there would seem to be some ground for such a judgment. However that may be, we here have evidence that the soil in influential Catholic circles was becoming receptive for the seeds of the movement soon to come. The main current of development, however, is to be most clearly traced in the heart of the Reformed Church, as its leaders addressed themselves to questions of organization and doctrine.

In the letter that, as we have seen, 7 Witrelin of Pinczow wrote to Lismanino, relating the condition of the churches that he was asked to aid in their work of reformation, he reported that so far as doctrine and worship were concerned everything was thus far satisfactory; but he added that some troublesome questions had arisen of late as to the mediatorial suffering of Christ, that some were denying that Christ was really the Son of God, and some were holding the erroneous doctrine of Servetus. He therefore desired to know what the brethren in Switzerland thought on these questions; for the Polish churches had as yet adopted no standard of doctrine to which they might be referred. He was evidently speaking of the first appearance of controversial questions that were soon sorely to vex the church in the persons of Gonesius and Stancaro.

At the important synod of Secemin the following January (1556) the matter came sharply to the front. One Peter Giezek of Goniadz, known in history by his latinized name of Gonesius,8 had come to the synod from Lithuania, bearing credentials from Radziwill, and apparently seeking admission to its membership. To this end he gave a full account of his life, and presented a written confession of his reformed faith.9 This was found unsound to the point of blasphemy. For he held that there is no Trinity, and that the very word is an invention; he wholly rejected the Athanasian Creed as a fiction of men; he said that the only God is God the Father, proving this from the words of Christ himself, and that Christ was less than the Father; and he denied that Christ was of one substance with the Father. These points he argued at length, and in support of them quoted Scripture and cited Irenaeus. The next day he was called back and admonished of his error, and as he stubbornly persisted in it he was bidden go to Wittenberg and discuss his confession with Melanchthon, and submit it to the judgment of the scholars there, and after that return if he wished, and show due evidence of repentance. Prayers were offered for him, a contribution was made toward the expenses of his journey, and agitated in spirit he bade them a tearful farewell. Sandius rightly records this as the first public denial of the doctrine of the Trinity in Poland.10

Gonesius11 was born about 1530 at Goniadz in northern Podlasie (Podlachia). Of his ancestry and early life nothing is known. Evidently he was not a congenital heretic, for the first notice we have of him is in 1550 when Stancaro interpreting one of the Psalms to his pupils at the University at Kráków said something against the invocation of the saints, and Gonesius is reported as one of those that joined in the uproar against him which led to his imprisonment.12 A year later he was sent by the Bishop of Wilno (Vilna), at whose court he may have been living, to Padua for further studies. Here he won the doctor’s degree and in 1554 lectured for a short time on some subject in philosophy.13 His studies at Padua fell toward the end of Gribaldi’s residence there, and it is possible that they may have met;14 and this was also in the period of Servetus’s trial and death at Geneva. It is therefore not strange that he should have become familiar with the views of Servetus while abroad. At all events, when he returned to Poland, probably in the summer of 1555, he was a radically changed man, in both his religious and his social views; for on his return journey he had sojourned among the Anabaptist communists in Moravia long enough to imbibe their sentiments on social questions in general and on pacifism in particular, in token of which he henceforth went girt with a wooden sword in place of the instrument of war that Polish gentlemen commonly wore.

It did not lie in the nature of Gonesius to keep to himself the revolutionary new views that thrilled him. He came home to Poland an ardent propagandist for them. His return coincided with the time when Radziwill was most zealously promoting the spread of the reformed religion in Lithuania, and he will naturally have turned thither when seeking a field of work. Apparently Radziwill at once received him into the number of his ministers, without inquiry into his particular views. The rest of the story we can easily construct. He will have made converts to his opinions, and it will undoubtedly have been these that Witrelin mentioned to Lismanino in his letter of September, 1555, saying that some also hold the erroneous doctrines of Servetus. This will explain why Radziwill sent him to submit his confession of faith to the judgment of the synod at Secemin. These views Lismanino evidently communicated to the ministers in Switzerland, and of them Beza wrote to Bullinger that for the most part they so closely agreed with Gribaldi’s confession that they might almost seem to have been copied from him.15 Whether they were in fact derived from Gribaldi, or instead from the writings of Servetus plus independent study of the New Testament and the early Fathers, can not be confidently determined.

Though the impression made upon the members of the synod at Secemin by Gonesius’s statement was on the whole distinctly unfavorable, yet some were set seriously to thinking. One of these was a minister named Gregory Paulus, who a decade later was to be for some time the head of the antitrinitarian cause in Little Poland. In fact, of the sixteen ministers there present seven, including Witrelin himself, were later found in the antitrinitarian camp, as were several of the noble laymen.16 Meanwhile Gonesius’s journey to Wittenberg proved fruitless for him. From a writing that he submitted, Melanchthon at once discovered that he was infected by the Arian or antitrinitarian heresy, refused to have anything to say to him, and denied his insistent request for a public disputation. Had not Gonesius voluntarily withdrawn he would have sent him from the town forthwith lest he spread his heresy among the students by private discussion. Melanchthon also warned the students against such discussions, 17 and for some time he entertained the design18  (never fulfilled) of writing a controversial work against Gonesius and the large book on the communicatio idiomatum which he had brought with him to Wittenberg. The judgment on Gonesius’s doctrine which he several months later wrote to the Polish brethren is not extant. 19

Gonesius went from Wittenberg to Frankfurt on the Oder, where his doctrine found no better favor, and thence to Poznan (Posen) with like result. Like Servetus before him he therefore determined to have recourse to print, and published a little Latin work containing the marrow of his doctrine, especially as to the divinity of Christ. It created an instant sensation. Within a month (April 23, I5 a joint synod of the Little Poland Calvinists and the Bohemian Brethren met at Pinczow, and Gonesius attended it. Lismanino also ventured from his hiding to be present. He was exasperated at what Gonesius had done, and on his motion it was almost unanimously voted that he be excluded from the synod20 as an Arian, that his book be refuted, and that two gentlemen be sent to the Bishop of Krakow to inform him that this heretic was not one of them, and had never been.21

Thus shut out from the fellowship of the reformed churches in Little Poland, and denounced to a Bishop who might at any time turn his prosecutor in court, Gonesius could no longer expect protection there. Undaunted he therefore turned to his earlier home in Podlasie, 22 where he was not long in winning to his views Piekarski the minister at Biala, and his deacon Falconius (Sokolowski). Upon learning of this, the Superintendent of the churches of the district accused these two to the synod at Wlodzislaw III 1558 of holding the views of Anus, Servetus and Gonesius Fearful of consequences, they stoutly denied the charge, subscribed an orthodox confession of faith, and promised henceforth faithfully to avoid such scandals.23 Succeeding synods kept sharper watch against the spreading of these heresies; and in the following year it was decreed that on beginning their ministry ministers should submit to a special examination as to their belief in God and the Trinity.24 However, as there was no close union of the Little Poland churches with those of Lithuania, the movement begun by Gonesius grew stronger every year in the latter country, both among the ministers and with the nobles that gave him their aid and patronage.

Henceforth Gonesius ceased trying to attend the synods in Little Poland. He turned instead to more friendly territory, and in December, 1558, he appeared at a synod at Brzese (Brest) in Lithuania, where he again freely expressed his favorite view about Christ and God, and also brought before the churches for the first time an attack upon infant baptism, a subject that was to engross their attention for many years to come. Although he won some converts, these views gave general offence, and only Piekarski, who now again appeared as his follower, ventured to speak in favor of them.25 But he defended his cause so ably, and his personal character was so exemplary, as to win the favor of the Lady Anna Kiszka,26 sister of Radziwill and mother of Jan Kiszka of Ciechanowiec, who was soon to show himself a powerful patron of antitrinitarian churches in Lithuania. Under her patronage he was made minister of the Reformed congregation at Wegrow, where he continued to live until his death. Already at Wilno in 1557 the first Lithuanian synod had taken note of heretical movements of Servetus and Gonesius, modern Arians, whose writings made them anxious; 27 and at the synod of Pinczów in 1559 it was complained that men evidently Arian were occupying pulpits though not ordained by the Superintendent and without his leave. 28 Hence the Pinczow synod in May, 1560 with Kiszka evidently in mind, admonished the Lithuanian nobles ‘who were promoting this fanatic’ to combat the heretics and expel Gonesius from their churches. 29

The influence of Gonesius thus far had enlisted no organized support, but had been only sporadic, and from now on for some years his share in the development of antitrinitarianism in Little Poland seems to have been negligible, save in so far as it operated through those whose minds he had set in motion by his addresses at the synods, or through his book. In fact, his interest was now more and more centered in the question of baptism, which he had brought forward at Brzesc and in that of Christianizing society through social reform after the principles of the Moravian Anabaptists. It was not until after the definite split between the orthodox Calvinists and the liberal wing in the Reformed Church had taken place in 1565 that Gonesius a took part in the synods of the latter. In the disputes that then arose, as the liberals tried to arrive at their own doctrine as to God and Christ, he became, along with Farnowski, one of the chief spokesmen of the conservative so- called Arian party, whose position he defended with particular heat; 30 for most of the Antitrinitarians had by this time already moved on quite beyond the position with which he so much shocked the synod at Secemin in 1556. In an attempt to stem this rising tide, he therefore once more resorted to print; and in 1570, near the end of his life, on a press that Kiszka had placed at his service at Wegrów, he published four little works 31 as his final legacy to the world. He probably died in the following year.

Postponing for the present any account of Gonesius’s part in the protracted controversy over the subject of baptism, and in that over the application of Christianity to social and civic relations, in both of which he took the initiative in the Reformed Church, even if he did not become leader, we may here summarize his contribution to the revolutionary doctrinal changes in Polish Protestantism, of which he was the first herald. 32 To begin with, he accepts Scripture as the perfect standard of faith, containing everything necessary for salvation. One of its chief teachings is that the Father of Christ is the only and Most High God; and whoever recognizes him as the true God is not far from the kingdom of God, be he Jew or Turk. God the Father is not the first person of the one God, but is himself the only true God. His Son is quite another being than God the Father. There is no difference between his essence and his person, for his essence is at the same time his person. It is to God as supreme Being and source of all that we must give highest honor.

The dogma of the Trinity is the chief cause of schisms and sects in the Church. It is a conception that has no support in Scripture, but is a mere invention of men. It is the foundation of all other errors in matters of faith. Neither Christ nor the Apostles taught it, as they would have done had it been true. God in his essence is simple, and a Trinity cannot be made by dividing the one substance of God into three parts. If one takes it as three separate substances, three real beings. and then joins them into one common essence, he commits the same error as Sabellius.

Christ (it is here that Gonesius opposes the new Unitarians of his time) existed before the creation of the world which, as John’s Gospel teaches, God created through him as his agent. But in this Gonesius is not properly Arian for Arius taught that God created his Son out of nothing, whereas he teaches that Christ was created out of the very substance of God.

Neither in the teaching of the Apostles nor in the belief of the first Christians have we any proof that the Holy Spirit of which Scripture speaks was God. It is distinct from the Father not only in its substance but in its whole person. It is through the Holy Spirit that God regenerates and renews those that are to become members of Christ’s Church. The way to salvation is through faith, of which the sacraments are only a confirmation. The necessary sacrament, and the one commanded by God, is immersion, a sign of the forgiveness of sins.

Such, in very brief summary, is the primitive and original form of the doctrine out of which eventually developed the movement whose history we are following. In the little group of new Protestant churches that it immediately concerned it aroused grave controversy; and in wider circles it was deemed of enough consequence to call forth a formal refutation from the Heidelberg theologian Zanchi, and to attract the attention of the Zurich theologian Simler, who characterized Gonesius as the Servetus of Poland.33 His particular form of doctrine was destined soon to be outgrown and left behind; while that which succeeded it did not in fact develop out of Gonesius’s teaching so much as run parallel to it and largely independent of it, as we shall see. Yet most of his followers eventually adopted it. More memorable than his distinction as a pioneer in doctrinal change is the fact that Gonesius was the first in Poland to connect religion with vital social problems, aiming through a reform in religious conceptions to bring about changes in personal life and reforms in men’s social relations and in the organization of society. This aim, which he was the first to advocate, a programme of radical social change through the application of religious teachings to the functioning of the social organism, was to become one of the most noteworthy marks of the antitrinitarian movement in Poland.

In an age when religious controvery was often rude and abusive, Gonesius was grave and dignified in manner, speaking from the level of thorough scholarship, and with a straightforward use of logic and an appeal to reason that raised him well above the usual level of religious debate. It is one of the ironies of history that though he was the first outspoken pioneer in Poland of our movement, yet he never became in any sense one of its leaders, and never won an organized following. He was one of those seed-sowers that are already forgotten before their harvest is ripe, a man a decade or two ahead of his time. It has remained for recent generations to recognize his services and to give his name such honor as it deserves. We have now to take leave of him for a time, and to trace the progress of events through which others carried on to permanent results the changes that he did not live to see come to full fruition.

Click here to open the frame set built to read this document. 

This page was last modified Sunday 12 November 2006.
Website ©1998–2006 Rev. Dr. Alicia McNary Forsey. Text ©1998–2004 t
he heirs of Earl Morse Wilbur.  All rights reserved.
For comments or requests write to { webweaver at pacificuu dot org }.