CHAPTER XXX

THE MINOR CHURCH UNDER THE LEADERSHIP OF SOCINUS,
1579–1604

THE COMING OF SOCINUS to the Polish churches at the time of their infant struggles must have seemed to them almost a dispensation of Providence. It had now been a score of years since their movement first began to germinate, and fourteen years since it had been cast off as a waif, at the mercy of both Catholics and Protestants whose hostility was bitter and undisguised. With organization and discipline still loose, their common church life was chaotic. They had no acknowledged leader; and though they disowned the authority of church traditions, councils and creeds, looking for guidance only to Scripture, yet they had adopted no common confession, and only the little congregation at Kráków had for its own apologetic purposes ventured to publish an elementary Catechism. They had no Melanchthon or Calvin to set their new faith in systematic order or to settle uncertain points of doctrine. They were indeed agreed upon rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity, but hardly upon any other doctrine, even as to the nature of Christ. They were well-nigh bewildered by the apparently inconsistent teachings that they found in the Bible, and their frequent synods were occupied with endless debates as they tried to settle this point or that. There were cautious conservatives on the one hand, and almost fanatical radicals on the other. Taking the country as a whole, there was a broad line of cleavage among them, between the churches of Little Poland in the south on the one hand, which in their Christology were conservative to the borders of orthodoxy, but in their social teachings were radical to a degree that finds an echo among many of the extreme social radicals of the twentieth century; and the churches of Lithuania far to the northeast on the other hand, which had been patronized by great magnates, and de fended existing social institutions and customs, but in Christology were unitarian almost to the point of Judaism.

Within these broad limits they were much concerned, and much divided, over such questions as the proper form of baptism, the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, the worship of Christ, the nature of the Holy Spirit, and the second coming of Christ. Their earlier leaders had now grown too old to exercise further leadership, and no new one had arisen who could speak with the authority of sound knowledge. Their movement therefore bid fair within a decade more to disintegrate hopelessly. It was at such a juncture that Socinus appeared, who, free from any bias of training in the old theology, had for four years been applying his fine native talents to the study of Scripture, had come to mature convictions on many points, and was prepared with magisterial authority to discuss many of the questions at issue. His competence was soon recognized, and although he never sought formal leadership, or tried to exert influence save by the method of rational argument, and was always modest as to his own attainments, yet ere long all instinctively looked to him as the one that could best guide them in their search for scripture truth, and could most ably defend them against the attacks of their adversaries.

Socinus exerted his influence not only in the doctrinal discussions at the church synods, but in a voluminous correspondence with both friends and opponents, by set debates to which he was challenged, and by printed works (anonymous until 1594) published at the solicitation of the church in answer to attacks upon it. Thus he debated the disputed question as to the invocation of Christ with Francken in 1584,1 and in a letter to the synod at Wegrow the same year he exhorted the brethren to maintain this practice in. their churches, since if it were given up they would lapse into Judaism or even into atheism.2 Like wise he urged the synod at Chmielnik in 1589 to abandon as unscriptural, false, absurd, and ruinous, the wide-spread expectation of a millennial reign of Christ on earth, which Czechowicz was ardently proclaiming. 3 More privately he discussed various doctrines at length, now as disputant with an equal, now as teacher to learner; with Radecki who sought advice about gathering a congregation at Danzig; with Niemojewski who, as Elder of the church at Lublin, felt responsibility for the soundness of its doctrine; with the young Stoinski (Statorius) who in his first pastorate at Luclawice was rapidly out growing the theology of his father-in-law, Gregory Paulus; with Ostorod, Völkel and Smalcius who were ere long to carry on his work of directing the thought of the Minor Church; and with Dudith, his peer in learning.

Socinus had not been long in Poland, however, when an urgent occasion arose for him publicly to champion the cause of his new brethren. In the preceding chapter an account has been given of the rise of the controversy as to the rightfulness of a Christian’s bearing arms or holding a civil office which exercises the right of the sword.4 Palaeologus had had the last word in the book that Budny published in 1580, which besides being extremely offensive in its tone, had so seriously misrepresented the real position of the Racovians, calling them disloyal, cowardly, downright wicked, and unworthy of the Christian name, 5 and was thus so much calculated to prejudice them in the eyes of the government, that they felt that it must not be allowed to go unanswered. Paulus, now grown aged and infirm, felt unequal to making a reply. The brethren therefore turned to Socinus, who in his brief residence in Poland had already won deep respect for his thorough knowledge of theology, his wide learning, his ability and skill in discussion, and his unvarying mildness and courtesy in debate; and notwithstanding that he had but lately been refused admission to their church he reluctantly accepted their commission, and in the summer of 1581 published his work.6 Reasoning only from Scripture, he de fended Paulus’s position, and refuted Palaeologus’s attack upon it. Although unsparing in criticism of what Palaeologus had written, and of the insulting manner of his attack upon Paulus, Socinus’s book was temperate in its argument. While in general he defended the Racovian view, he avoided the extremes of some of the brethren; but he held that members of the church must obey the law of Christ. The command not to kill admits of no exceptions. Even defensive warfare cannot be reconciled with the obligations of a Christian: the church must be pacifist. Also the jus gladii in the punishment of criminals is not a Christian office; hence believers may not exercise it nor co-operate with it. Yet one is bound to yield obedience to civil government so far as this does not conflict with the teaching of Christ, should pay taxes even though they be spent for war, may serve as magistrate if not inflicting capital punishment, and may through the secular courts seek redress of injuries.7

This work of Socinus, published secretly and anonymously, produced no immediate effect. In Transylvania, indeed, where Palaeologus was admired for his shining abilities, and where the social views prevalent at Ráków were not approved, it was sharply criticized. 8 But from the Jesuits there soon came a dangerous attack. This order, which had been introduced into the country by Cardinal Hosius in 1564, had now become well established, was just setting up a house at Kráków, and had already for some time conducted a college at Poznan where the Jesuit fathers were now publishing a defence of the doctrine of the Trinity against its new deniers, 9 the first of a long series of Jesuit polemics against the Minor church, soon to be followed by the violent attack on Czechowicz’s Dialogues of 1575, which obviously pointed at Socinus, though unnamed, as discouraging loyalty to the magistrate. 10 When King Stephen, returning from his campaigns in the north, was thus told that a book had been published which was calculated to undermine the royal authority, his attention was aroused. Socinus, consciously innocent of any seditious thought, felt no fear; 11 but he was persuaded to act on the advice of experienced friends, and accepted the hospitality of the prominent noble, Christopher Morsztyn, in the little village of Pawlikowice some ten or twelve miles to the southeast, where on the estate of a nobleman even the King would have no right to molest him.12 Waiting for any danger to pass, he stayed here for four years (1583—’87), though from time to time coming to Kráków for brief visits, until the death of the King made it quite safe for him to return thither. 13 In this safe retreat Socinus was able to lead an outwardly quiet life, but he wielded an ever busy pen in answer to the inquiries from all quarters as to points of doctrine or matters of policy.

At his new seat, Socinus was first occupied in an important controversial work on the nature and expiatory work of Christ, which in effect supplemented his early work on Christ the Savior, though the latter had not yet been published. One Andrew Wolan (Volanus), a theologian who held high position in Lithuania, and was regarded as the ablest champion of the Calvinist cause in Poland, had published a work accusing the liberals of reviving heresies of the first three Christian centuries, and attacking not only the whole church but also Socinus personally. 14 Socinus replied for the brethren in an authoritative exposition, amply fortified by Scripture, of their belief as to God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the forgiveness of sins.15 At Pawlikowice he continued his investigation of theological questions, debated some of them with persons who sought to set him right, and gave counsel to inquirers orally or by letters. All seemed to turn to him with their questions. But the most important occurrence at this period was his marriage, probably in the summer of 1586, to Elizabeth Morsztyn, the daughter of his host. Not long afterwards, the King now having died, he returned to Kráków, where in the following spring a daughter was born to him. 16 But his happiness was soon cut short, for the young mother died a few months later. Socinus was overwhelmed with grief, his health, never robust, was shattered, and for the better part of a year he was unable to resume his normal occupations. Indeed, from now to the end of his life he suffered from attacks of various illnesses, and both hearing and eyesight were increasingly impaired. Nor did troubles come singly. Hitherto he had been comfortably supported by the revenues from his inherited estates in Italy; but when in 1587 death deprived him of the protection of his patron the Grand-Duke in Florence, he lost all his property in Italy by action of the Holy Office at Siena. Henceforth his life was one of poverty, in which however he never lacked the bounty and hospitality of generous friends.17

Socinus continued to live at Kráków, now busier than ever over correspondence with leaders of the church about their problems doctrinal or practical. Whenever well enough he attended synods in person, trying by calm discussion to bring about agreement on subjects in controversy, such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the atonement, the second coming of Christ and above all the invocation of Christ, which he held to be the very touchstone of true Christianity; and when unable to attend he sent doctrinal tracts to be read as his contribution to the discussion. As early as 1588 at a provincial synod at Brzesc (Brest) in Lithuania he reasoned so persuasively about the worship of Christ, and his nature, death and sacrifice, as to win over nearly all opponents, 18 and henceforth his authority in such matters was seldom questioned. Only two or three of the older generation like Czechowicz and Niemojewski still held out for a few years more while the younger ministers enthusiastically accepted his more liberal and reasonable interpretation of Scripture. As his authority in doctrinal matters came to be more and more acknowledged, so he was more and more called upon to champion the views of his church, especially against the Jesuits, who had now become the protagonists of the Catholic dogmas. Thus in 1590 Jacob Wujek, one of their most celebrated scholars, had published a book in Polish on the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit,’ 19 re producing the arguments of the famous Jesuit theologian, Roberto Bellarmino, and when two years later the author was boasting that none of the ‘Anabaptists’ had yet made any adequate reply to it, the Synod entreated Socinus to publish a refutation; which indeed had from the first been his desire, though various causes had hindered him. 20 He now complied with their wish, and his work was at once translated into Polish by Stoinski (Statorius). 21It was a work of ample length, in which he proceeded step by step, in order, to a thorough and complete scriptural refutation. Although he had thus far written anonymously, Socinus’s authorship was either known or suspected, and he was regarded as practically the acknowledged spokesman for the Minor Church. Hence he became the object of frequent attacks in print and from the pulpit; especially after the publication under his own name of his De Jesu Christo Servatore (1594), which was taken almost as a challenge of defiance to his opponents. 22

It is easily seen that with the Catholic reaction already gathering force under the inspiration of the Jesuits such a public was calculated to fan into a flame a fire that was already more than latent. In this very year Socinus became the victim of a brutal outrage in the streets of Kráków. 23 The city was full of soldiers in anticipation of an attack from the Tatars who were now ravaging Hungary, and discipline and good order were relaxed. Among those called to serve was a certain Kaspar Wiernek, a young Catholic noble from the Carpathian foothill district where ‘Arian’ churches were most numerous. He nourished a grievance against Socinus for having made a heretic of his father-in-law. Heated with wine, he was walking along the street with a troop of cavalrymen under his command, when he espied Socinus and ordered his men to drag him away. While Socinus shouted for help and a crowd came running up, Wiernek had Socinus mouth stopped with filthy mud, and even his whole face smeared with filth, and then, having made him fall at his feet as a humble suppliant, he let him go. The outrage was not punished, but a common acquaintance secured from the assailant an apology for a deed done when he was drunk. Socinus forgave him, and even brought about a reconciliation of him with his father-in-law.

A much more serious occurrence took place in 1598.24 Socinus, though living a very retired life, was by now regarded as one of the outstanding heretics in Kráków, and the great church festivals were occasions when outbreaks of violence against heretics were most apt to occur. University students often took the lead in the mobs that were frequent throughout all this period. As Ascension Day approached Socinus may have had a premonition of danger to himself, for to ensure safety from any attack, he secretly gathered together his most precious possessions and removed them to the dwelling of his landlord. 25 Some one had indeed hit upon him as a suitable victim for the holiday, and had informed the students where he was to be found. He was easily tracked to his hiding-place, which was near the University. The mob rushed to the dwelling, and forced their way in under threats of violence. Socinus was ill and in bed, but they dragged him out, struggling, bareheaded and barefoot, covered only with a cloak, to the great market-place in front of the Rathaus, and strewed in the mud or threw into the fire the books, papers and letters that they had taken from his room, threatening him with the same treatment unless he recanted. He replied with great firmness, ‘I do not recant, but what I have been I am and will be, by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, as long as I live; and you may do whatever God permits you.’ Though again threatened with a drawn sword he remained unmoved so that many marveled at his firmness. Somewhat abashed they decided to drown him instead, and started for the Vistula. As the throng was passing the University, the tumult was heard by one of the professors, who upon learning what they were at bade them bring the heretic to him, which they did, and he then locked his door against them. Having learned who his unfortunate visitor was, he showed him all possible kindness, and with the assistance of others took him disguised to a safer place, whence having narrowly escaped another attack, which was broken up by a violent thunder and hail storm, he was removed at daybreak to the estate of an Italian friend at Igolomia, some fifteen miles to the east.26

Socinus had long since been urged to make his home at Igolomia, and would now have been glad to stay permanently in so agreeable a place but for two reasons: it lacked the books that he especially needed for his studies, and it was thought to be too near Kráków for his safety.27 Hence as soon as he had recovered strength he removed to the village of Luclawice some forty-five miles southeast of Kráków, where he was to spend the rest of his life, under the patronage of the proprietor of the village and with the congenial companionship of his devoted disciple, Stoinski, who was minister of the congregation. He never ceased to lament the loss of his precious books and papers, but as long as his precarious health and his miserable eyesight permitted he continued to pursue his studies. His last important written work was in answer to the request of a friend in the Calvinist church that he explain why some of its most learned and worthy members should think their church inferior to that of the ‘Arians.’ The Calvinist church of Poland was in fact in a state of weakness under the attacks of the Catholics; its spiritual life seemed stagnant, its intellectual level was not above the average, and its political influence had declined, while the Minor Church, despite some of its singular views and practices, was increasing in strength and spiritual influence.28 In this work, which he presently gave to the public,29 he urged that all those that were anxious for genuine religion really ought to join the Minor Church, miscalled Arian. He charged that the Calvinist church had not wholly purified itself of the errors of the Roman Church, and had retained some doctrines opposed to Christ’s teachings, while ignoring some of his plain commands; and that it was a Christian’s duty to belong to the church that is freest from error. He also complained that their moral standards were not strict, and that discipline and restraint of their members was slack, since many who did things that the church forbids were nevertheless admitted to the Lord’s Supper. This lack of discipline had in recent years caused the church to lose many members and the Minor Church to gain many; while outsiders began to suspect that the doctrine of the latter was better than that of the orthodox, since its teachings were highly agreeable to Scripture and reason. This little work seems to have produced a deep impression, and it called forth several answers in defence for nearly a quarter of a century; but it is of particular interest for the evidence it shows of the deep concern of the Minor Church for purity of scripture doctrine, and for strictness of moral life in its members.

As the shadows grew longer, and Socinus was warned by his failing health that his remaining days must be few, he grew concerned for the future of the churches. Recognizing the leadership which was now by common consent given him, he called together a dozen of the leading ministers in the spring of 1601 at Ráków to discuss important doctrinal questions. 30 Their gathering was unofficial, and was in fact a sort of theological seminar, conducted by Socinus, who presented his views on various questions and then threw them open for general discussion. No better method could have been chosen to harmonize differences and to promote final agreement. The sessions lasted three whole weeks, and covered such questions as the being of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, man, sin, free will, the Scriptures, and sacraments. Emphasis was laid upon essential points, while subordinate details were left open as not being necessary to salvation. From these doctrinal questions Socinus went on to the social ones that had of late caused such sharp dissension: engaging in lawsuits, resistance to physical evil, taking part in war, etc. All these Socinus treated in a spirit thoroughly Christian, but he avoided fanatical extremes by viewing them in the light of actually existing conditions. This meeting was found so profitable that a similar one was held at Ráków late the following year, which lasted for twelve days and was attended by over a score of ministers and an equal number of Elders and other lay brethren. 31 Discussion of the doctrinal and social questions that had been left unfinished or untouched was now continued, and was en livened by a spirited exchange of views between the progressive and rational Socinus and the literal and conservative Czechowicz. Here Socinus defended the holding of private property, and the taking of interest, but opposed luxury and a greed for wealth beyond one’s needs. Thus step by step he toned down the exaggerated views of the Anabaptist extremists, while at the same time he still insisted on maintaining careful discipline among members of the church. 32

After the turn of the century Socinus began also to collect and revise his various writings with a view to their being later published or reprinted. 33 They had in fact covered all the main and many of the minor topics in Christian theology as he had restated it. Indeed, he had begun as early as 1592 to reduce his teachings to an ordered system for use in the form of a catechism, though three years later he had been able to make little progress on it, and all but a fragment of the manuscript perished with the rest of his papers at the hands of the mob at Kráków in 1598. 34 But since the publication of Schomann’s little Catechism in 1574, and of Czechowicz’s Rozmowy in the following year, thought among the churches had made much progress, and under the constant discussions had steadily grown clearer and more definite, so that a new work was now urgently needed to assist in promoting harmony of teaching in the churches, and to set their doctrines in fair light before inquirers or opponents. No clear evidence is at hand that the Synod itself authorized the composition of such a work. It was apparently rather the result of consultation among some of the younger ministers who, as followers of Socinus, wished to set forth a system of faith that might replace the now waning doctrine of Czechowicz. The work proposed was a ‘reformation’ of the existing Catechism; and direction of it was, after careful deliberation by the brethren concerned, left to Statorius (Stoinski), who lived near Socinus at Luclawice, and was his closest friend. Socinus was to devote to it all his spare time.35 But he was already worn down by illness, and in a few weeks more he had to answer the last call. He died on March 3, 1604, at Luclawice. 36 Statorius performed the last offices for his master, and in a little more than a year followed him.

Busy as his pen had been during his life in Poland, Socinus had for want of funds been unable to publish much; and most of the ten or twelve works that had seen the light were printed through the interest of his friends. His other writings circulated only in manuscript, and as he could seldom afford an amanuensis, he had to spend much of his time in making the copies that were continually requested. After his death, however, the churches, realizing their loss, took measures to collect and preserve all his writings, and later to have the more important of them also published in German and Dutch translation.37 Thus a pretty steady stream of his writings or of reprints of his earlier works kept issuing from the Ráków press during the next quarter- century, whence they spread widely over western Europe, stimulating inquiry among scholars, arousing bitter controversy from orthodox theologians, and insensibly influencing Christian thought among both Protestants and Catholics. Socinianism became a factor that could no longer be passed by in silence, or dismissed with contempt, but had to be taken seriously into account, and for well-nigh two centuries those that undertook to refute it often laid themselves out at great length to do so. The complete collected works of Socinus were not published until 1668, in two stately folio volumes of the Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum at Amsterdam.