THE MINOR REFORMED CHURCH: ITS EARLY HISTORY;
THE QUESTION OF BAPTISM
THE FRUITLESS CONFERENCE at Piotrkow in 1565 between the two wings of the Reformed Church marked an important turning-point in the history of both the Polish Reformation and the antitrinitarian movement. It brought to completion that schism in the Reformed Church which began when Sarnicki in 1562 and 1563 formed seceding orthodox synods. With this, the orthodox reaction, against the liberal spirit that had been steadily spreading ever since the outbreak of the controversy with Stancaro, now came full circle. Henceforth the Calvinists steadily refused to have further association in synods with those of the liberal wing; nor would they from this time on give ear to any of the conciliatory approaches that continued for more than a generation to be made by them. For the reformation movement as a whole in Poland the schism was eventually to prove fatal; for at the very hour when its ultimate fate hung trembling in the balance, and when it needed its whole united forces in the struggle against the reviving power of Rome, the Protestants in their blind folly deliberately divided their camp and fell to fighting against each other. By demanding the acceptance of certain speculative dogmas as the thing of first and greatest importance in religion, they sacrificed upon the altar of dogma the chance of success for their whole cause. From this time on the history of Protestantism in Poland is therefore a record of progressive weakness, gradual decline, slow strangulation, and ultimate practical extinction at the hands of Rome.1
To the development of the Antitrinitarian movement, on the other hand, the separation from the orthodox Calvinists made a significant contribution. Emphasis was now transferred from criticism of traditional doctrines to the gradual formation of a new doctrinal system on a basis largely independent of tradition Along with the freedom of thought and its expression in religion which the past few years had asserted and so largely won, came a growing recognition of the claims of reason in religion and an ever wider and more broad-minded practice of tolerance between those that held conflicting views. It was this tolerance that in the years next following saved the movement from wreckage under striking differences of view within until, with the cultivation of Christian patience, harmony could be attained by the process of free discussion. Finally, when the strictly doctrinal questions that seemed most urgent had been brought to a state of comfortable equilibrium, the attention of the young church was largely transferred from Christianity as a doctrine to Christianity as a way of practical life, with main emphasis upon the application of the teachings of the New Testament, and especially of the Sermon on the Mount, to matters of personal character and conduct, and to the wider social problems arising in the State. The present chapter and those following will trace the development of this process in its various phases.
After Piotrków nothing remained for the liberal congregations in the Reformed body but to go their way alone. It can hardly be said that they seceded from the Calvinists, for they did not sever relations voluntarily. Indeed, they would have much preferred to continue in one undivided church in which room was allowed for differing doctrinal views to be held in a spirit of generous mutual tolerance, while all devoted themselves to promoting the ends that they had in common. Nor can they be said to have been excluded from the parent church by a dominant majority; for they formed in some respects the most important and influential element in it, and in the synods of the church in the years preceding the schism, the liberal contingent had steadily grown until they were themselves a very decisive majority.
The new church at first had no distinctive name. At their first synod after Piotrków the members are described in the extant records as ‘the brethren in Poland and Lithuania who have rejected the Trinity.’2 Their opponents, both Protestant and Catholic, usually called them (however inaccurately) Arians, and this name is the one still most commonly given them in Polish usage to this day; but they themselves preferred to be called simply Christians. 3 However, the official title of the church was the Minor Reformed Church of Poland. This title seems to imply that the Reformed Church from which they were now separated retained the larger number of members or of congregations; though in effective strength and efficient leadership it was markedly inferior to the Minor Church. Already two years before, Jean Thenaud, whom Calvin had sent to aid the reformed cause as teacher in the academy at Pinczow, had written to his master that all the best educated ministers in the church were going after Pau1us;4 and six months after the schism at Piotrkow Tretius wrote to Simler that the affairs of the church were in no wise improved, and that its life was quite demoralized. 5 Indeed, he wrote to Bullinger, the Arians continued so vigorous, and they had led so many of the ministers astray, that the church was impoverished of superior ministers. However, the orthodox excelled in numbers, and they had a great many of the nobles, while the Arians had not a single member in the Senate, in which all the (lay) members favored the orthodox. Yet the Arian opposition was so strong and bitter than one must weep that the Christian cause, which had seemed so prosperous, had come to such a wretched pass that one knew not whether to have any hope of it. 6
In such circumstances the orthodox, having failed to overcome their opponents by methods of reasoning or persuasion, and seeing them on the contrary steadily gain in strength and influence, resorted to methods of force. Taking advantage of their predominance in the Diet and their influence with high officials, they entered on a policy of persecution by the civil power. From now on they sought with implacable bitterness to crush ‘Arianism’ by every means within reach, and to this end willingly joined with the Catholics or instigated them against their opponents, little dreaming that the weapons now employed against their enemies would next be used equally against themselves. The members of the Minor Church on their part, finding themselves disappointed in their hopes that the whole reform movement would soon be converted to ‘the pure religion’ as they understood it, devoted themselves intensively in their now restricted field to investigating the pure truth of Christianity. They continued as before the schism to hold synods, appoint ministers and general church officers, clear up any unsettled questions of belief or practice, and in general to attend to whatever matters concerned the welfare of their cause. Their constituency included, besides a relatively large number of the ablest ministers that had sided with them in the Reformed Church before the schism, a large number of the lesser nobility, a few holders of high public offices, and a considerable contingent of commoners as well as not a few in humble life.
The one powerful magnate, who by his support and influence could have contributed incalculably to the progress of their cause, Prince Nicholas Radziwill, Palatine of Wilno and Chancellor of Lithuania, unfortunately for them died less than a month after the Diet at Piotrkow. From early in the Reformation he had been its most active and powerful supporter in Lithuania. He had been a friend of Laelius Socinus, and patron of Biandrata and others in the liberal wing of the Reformed Church, and though he unmistakably favored the liberal tendencies in it, he had hoped to see the church remain an undivided body. But already in 1563 he was said to have driven from his large estates those clergy that did not agree with his views of the Trinity;7 and upon his death Tretius declared that Radziwill had been infected with the Arian heresy, and by his patronage had in every way promoted the Arian cause.8 Thus by the time of the schism at Piotrków the yoke of Calvinism had been largely shaken off among the Lithuanian churches, though it was still strong at Wilno, and there were ministers of both kinds both there and elsewhere.
It will be convenient at this point to interrupt our main narrative in order to carry through to the end the brief history of Antitrinitarianism in Lithuania. After Radziwill’s death half the Calvinist ministers in the country, with Czechowicz at their head, are said to have gone openly over to ‘Arianism,’ 9 and his young nephew, Jan Kiszka, 10 soon did the same. Fifty ministers and 100 nobles followed his example.11 Kiszka was proprietor of 70 cities and towns and some 400 villages,12 and he transferred the Calvinist churches on his estates (in accordance with the custom of the time and land) to the ‘Arians’, or built them new ones, and provided them with a press at Losk for publishing their works. He was already a patron and disciple of Gonesius at Wegrow. 13 The churches he patronized were especially numerous in the palatinates of Nowogrodek and Brzesc.14 The Lithuanian churches in general, partly because of their remoteness and isolation from the churches in Poland, partly from factors in their local environment, became, as we shall see, extremely radical theologically, but remained correspondingly conservative as to social and political questions, though these too were much agitated by a strong minority. So long as Kiszka lived, they flourished; but when he died childless in 1592 the churches on his estates followed the fortunes of the estates themselves, and fell to his nearest relatives, his cousins the sons of Radziwill who since their father’s death had become fanatical Catholics, and they were thus lost to Protestantism or had embraced Calvinism. A few of the antitrinitarian churches in the larger towns survived for a time, but many of the churches in Lithuania became extinct early in the seventeenth century, and the last of them perished in the Cossack war in 1654. 15
We return now to the history of the Minor Church in Poland proper. Now that the vexed question of the Trinity had been largely disposed of, the members of the Minor Church were the more free to attend to other matters inviting discussion, and they therefore continued to meet in synods as though nothing had happened. Indeed, their Superintendent, Lutomirski, continued to be the same that they had had in the Reformed Church before the schism. Their first separate meeting was held June 10, 1565, at Brzeziny. 16 Though it might be difficult or impossible to pronounce which of the reformed congregations was the first definitely to adopt the new views, it may be confidently said that the synod of Brzeziny was the first assembly in which antitrinitarian congregations met as a separate body to consult for their common ends. This date may therefore be taken as that of the historical beginning of organized Unitarianism.
The occasion of the meeting was the pressing need of settling a disputed question as to baptism. To most persons to-day this subject may seem to be of trifling importance, but in the early Reformation it was almost universally considered vital. On the basis of New Testament teaching it was regarded as being, along with belief, essential to salvation, and a condition of the forgiveness of sins.17 Moreover, the usage and tradition of centuries had made it the outward sign and seal of membership in the Christian community, without which one was regarded as virtually a pagan. Yet when the more liberal reformers began to examine the subject, it seemed to many of them that baptism implied previous repentance; and that infants, being as yet incapable of repentance, could not be said to have been really baptized at all; and that their eternal salvation was thus jeopardized. This was the general view of the Anabaptists, who therefore insisted that true baptism could be given only to regenerate adults; and that any that had been baptized in infancy should be rebaptized in mature life.
The origin of the Anabaptist movement in Poland is somewhat obscure. When it began to attract attention it was but natural to assume its connection with the fanatical and revolutionary Anabaptism of Münster and elsewhere in western Europe. Despite some superficial similarities of practice, however, there is no evidence of historical connection. Synods of previous years had repeatedly condemned the western type of Anabaptism, with its revolutionary tendencies and its loose moral practices; and the Polish Anabaptists regarded the term, when applied to themselves, as hostile and offensive, 18 and indignantly denied any association with the radical social movements in Germany and Holland. The movement that came to a head in 1565 seems therefore rather to have come chiefly from independent study of the New Testament by ministers who were concerned to have the doctrines and usages of their churches conform as closely as possible to the New Testament standard; and it appears to have received its original impulse from Gonesius who, as we have seen19 at the synod of Brzesc’ in 1558, attacked infant baptism as sanctioned by neither Scripture, the earliest Christian practice, nor reason.20 His views were at the time almost universally condemned, but upon some they apparently made a lasting impression, and they quietly spread in both Lithuania and Little Poland; for within the next few years sporadic appearances of Anabaptist doctrines occurred in various places in both countries. 21 The movement now spread rapidly, and debates on the subject occupied nearly every synod, while even before the schism local synods at Wilno, Xiaz and Koscielec had voted not to baptize infants. 22 Thus after seven years of increasing discussion since Gonesius first brought the subject forward, infant baptism had in 1556 become the most prominent issue in the churches.
In the church at Wilno, Simon Zak (Zacius), the first Superintendent of the Lithuanian churches,23 had already in 1559 sought to forestall trouble by publishing for the church a confession defending infant baptism; but now, after Radziwill’s death, a fresh controversy on the subject arose between two ministers of the church, Mar Czechowicz24 and Nicholas Wedrogowski, which became so aggravated that a new schism was threatened, this time among the Antitrinitarians themselves. To prevent such a misfortune, the synod above mentioned was convened at Brzeziny.25 32 of the ministers and 18 of the gentry were present. There was much discussion of baptism, but as many of the ministers felt as yet unprepared or not authorized to decide the question, action upon it was deferred for further consideration at a larger synod to be held at the end of the year. An outward form of reconciliation, however, was effected between the two ministers, both of whom had been shown to be at fault, as they were contritely to confess before their own church. As to baptism itself, it was resolved that they should be guided by the Holy Spirit, and that no one on either side should be forced against his conscience, but that they should dwell together in peace, refrain from using such invidious names as Anabaptist, and continue in fervent prayers to God until the next synod, when God of his mercy should show them the way. 26 Thus the leaders of the Minor Church had already come to realize the value of harmony in the church, and they henceforth emphasized the necessity for settling disputed questions in love and mutual respect. It was a long step toward that tolerance in religion which was to become one of the distinctive marks of their movement.
The interval before the adjourned synod was filled with preparations for it on both sides, and letters of propaganda flew back and forth, for it was realized that a crucial decision was to be made. The Lithuanians had complained of having so often to go to Poland to attend synods, whereas the Poles would not come to them. In order to accommodate them, therefore, the synod was appointed to meet at Wegrow, a town in Podlasie some forty miles northeast of Warsaw. The attendance was large, with 47 ministers and 14 of the leading men and gentry present, besides commoners. The eminent Jerome Filipowski, Treasurer of the Palatinate of Krakow, who had been the leader of his party in the debate at Piotrkow, was chosen to preside. A letter to the synod was read from the most noble Lady Anna Kiszka,27 wife of the Palatine of Witebsk, mother of Jan Kiszka, and sister of Prince Nicholas Radziwill lately deceased; also from various other private members of the church unable to attend in person, as well as from churches and Elders of various districts. All manifested deep interest, and all earnestly begged that nothing be done contrary to Scripture, and that all care be taken to preserve harmony and charity, and to avoid quarrels and divisions.
The meetings began on Christmas day and lasted for six days, sessions continuing through the entire day without intermission. 28 The daily sessions opened with morning prayer, and the rest of the day was given over to discussion of the question of baptism: whether infant baptism were sanctioned by Scripture or not. Each one present gave his vote in turn as the Spirit moved him, and then discussion pro and con followed. The one side argued that baptism of believing adults is an ordinance commanded by Christ, and cited many passages from the Acts and the Epistles supporting their view, and added that there is nowhere in Scripture either command or example of infant baptism. If one looked to early Christian tradition, history and the of the early Fathers prove that in the Apostolic Age and the one next following infants were not baptized. The other side presented many arguments from modern writers defending their opinion, holding their ground and asking leave to baptize their little ones nevertheless. A few were undecided. Debate was long and warm, but at length it was agreed that since in matters of faith no one in the true church of God may lord it over another, nor be forced, each should enjoy freedom of conscience and be allowed to publish writings on the subject, provided nothing was said or written calculated to anger another or openly contrary to Christ’s command. Thus (says the chronicler) they kept love inviolate by stipulating only that no one should do anything against the honor of God or burdening to conscience. Thus the practical question was harmoniously disposed of under the principle of mutual tolerance, although at the end only a small minority of eight continued to favor infant baptism.29
It was pointed out in course of the discussion that those that had been baptized in infancy could not regard themselves as really baptized. When on the other hand it was insinuated that opponents of infant baptism were followers of the revolutionary Anabaptists of Münster, they solemnly affirmed that as they had hitherto been sincerely obedient to the powers ordained of God, so they would in future, as a matter of conscience, take yet greater pains to this end. Despite their heated discussion, at the end they made mutual apologies for offence given or taken, and having forgiven one another they separated in love. This custom became almost a tradition, so often is it reported of later synods where sharp differences of opinion had been manifested.
The temperate conclusion reached at Wegrów may have been influenced by a letter from the Antitrinitarian churches in Transylvania written to those in Poland, doubtless at the instigation of Biandrata, who from a distance was watching with close attention the progress of the movement that he had done so much to guide in its first period, and who evidently cherished a plan for union between the churches that rejected the doctrine of the Trinity in the two countries; as well as also by a letter that he himself wrote to Paulus, largely on the doctrinal aspect of the desired union, but incidentally expressing concern lest a squabble over a subordinate matter like baptism should stand in the way of firmly establishing the primary article about the being of God. 30 Biandrata urged the churches not to split over baptism, which was not necessary to salvation, though it might be retained if it were found helpful, and which was practiced in ancient times only in the case of converts from Judaism or paganism.
A full and conciliatory account of the proceedings and conclusion of the synod, written by Lutomirski, who before the schism had succeeded Cruciger as Superintendent, and had continued in office in the Minor Church, was sent to the Wilno brethren in the name of the synod. Budny and Falconius, two ministers well known at Wilno, were also sent in order if possible to pacify the brethren there.31 Their mission was unsuccessful, for the spirit of Lutomirski’s letter was not reciprocated. A sharp reply to it was sent, calling Anabaptism a plague imperiling the souls of men, and its teachers false prophets. To this a rejoinder was made in defence against the insinuation that the Anabaptists of Poland were akin to those of Münster. Whether Gonesius, who had been the first to attack infant baptism at the synod at Brzesc in 1558, and was now apparently living at Wegrow, was an interested listener or perhaps a participant in the discussions of the synod is not known, as names are not given. But at all events, though he had been excluded from the Little Poland synod at Pinczow in 1556, the ban against him seems now to have been lifted, and he appears to have taken active part in later synods. 32
While disapproval of infant baptism had been all but unanimous at Wegrow and had already flooded Lithuania,33 at Wilno its defenders were in the saddle, and now that Radziwill was no more, Czechowicz, their strongest opponent, had to leave. Henceforth he made his home in Poland, where it was largely through his able advocacy that the practice of infant baptism rapidly declined in the Minor Church, and adult baptism by immersion was at length accepted as the only form acknowledged by Scripture. 34 He went first to Kujawy, where he made a notable convert to his views on baptism and social reform in the person of Jan Niemojewski, 35 district judge of Inowroclaw, learned and eloquent, who had been member of several Diets. Born between 1526 and 1530, himself son of a judge, he had studied in Germany, had been active in promoting the Reformation, had adhered to the liberal wing and spread his views among the neighboring nobles, and had taken part on the liberal side of the debate at Piotrków. Following the teaching of Czechowicz, he now received immersion, and with several of his neighbors undertook to live a life strictly conformed to the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount; and he formed at Niemojowka a little antitrinitarian Anabaptist church. Though the wealthy proprietor of over twenty villages, he freed his serfs, and resigned his office as Judge, because in it he might have to sentence a fellow-man to death. He sold his property and distributed to the poor, and when a member of the Diet at Lublin in 1566 soon after his baptism, he appeared among the splendid throng of handsomely dressed and sword-girt nobles meanly dressed and without sword or retinue.36 The rest of his life he spent in the unpaid service of the church, loyally supporting Czechowicz, earning his living with his own hands, and eloquently and unweariedly championing his cause in debate or in print against Jesuits, or fellow ‘Arians’ of another stripe: a mystical idealist, whose dignified and gentle character won the sincere respect of his opponents.
After several years of activity in Kujawy, Czechowicz with Niemojewski and several others removed to the newly-founded town of Ráków, of which we shall soon have much to say, where a new religious community was gathering that promised to satisfy their ideal of a city of God on earth. But conditions here ere long became so chaotic religiously and socially that, discontented with the arbitrary and extreme leadership of Paulus, they went on in 1570 to Lublin, where Czechowicz heeded the Macedonian cry of a congregation that had for five years been without responsible leadership, and was threatening to fall to pieces. 37 Lublin was a populous, wealthy and cultivated town, and the two labored here with much success for nearly thirty years in building up what was for a considerable time the most influential congregation in the Minor Church. Czechowicz insisted upon immersion as a condition of joining the church, and persuaded many to receive it; 38 and here he published an important work against infant baptism,39 which became a recognized classic on the subject, and which a critic over two centuries later pronounced to be still unequaled in its treatment of the question.40 The church at Krakow, guided by its most influential lay member, Simon Ronemberg, had already taken the same ground; Georg Schomann, sometime teacher at Pinczów, had been immersed at the age of 42 while minister at Chmielnik in 1572, and when he became minister of Paulus’s old congregation at Krakow in the following year his wife and mother there received the rite, 41 while the other congregations rapidly fell into line.
Czechowicz remained minister at Lublin until 1598 when, his patron and colleague Niemojewski having now died, he was retired from his ministry in favor of able younger men who laid less stress upon baptism, and had fallen under the more liberal influence of a new leader in Faustus Socinus. He died in 1613 at the age of 81, and his parting admonition to the group that still adhered to him was, in spite of all differences, not to abandon the Minor Church.42