CHAPTER XXXII

SOCINIANISM FULL-BLOWN: PROPAGANDA, ORGANIZATION AND USAGES

THE DEATH OF FAUSTUS SOCINUS and the closely following publication of the Racovian Catechism mark an epoch in the history of Socinianism. During the next generation the little church on the one hand made rapid increase in its internal health and in vigorous outward activity, yet on the other hand began to feel a premonition of those increasing persecutions which were in another generation to put a period to its history in Poland. During a quarter-century the ripe scriptural knowledge and the persuasive reasoning of Socinus had brought about among practically all the members of the church a satisfactory agreement as to all the doctrines regarded as most important, and a broad tolerance as to the rest; and his practical good sense in the face of existing conditions had overcome the extreme views, doctrinal or social, that had once threatened to wreck the young church. With the divisions that had so seriously split its forces and sapped its strength thus comfortably brought together in unity upon essentials, the church was at length in a position to expand in adult strength. The high moral standards by which its adherents had from the first been distinguished were now observed more scrupulously than ever, appealed strongly to such as were seriously in earnest, commanded the respect of all, and were praised by even their adversaries. Their educated men also were putting forth works of literature of such excellence that though the smallest of the confessions in Poland, the ‘Arians’ outshone all others put together in the history of Polish letters.1

Inspired with fresh confidence in the truth of their doctrines and the future of their cause, of whose early triumph they felt sure, they burned with fervent missionary zeal to spread it as fast and far as possible. It was no mere vain boastfulness in Socinus when he appealed to all in the Reformed Church that were anxious to cultivate true piety, to abandon their lax and declining body and join the company of his brethren.2 The vigorous life that the Minor Church had by now attained was expressed in various directions. A natural desire for sympathy and co-operation with other bodies seeking a purer and simpler form of Christianity early led the Socinians to seek some sort of union with them. Their attempt to come into fraternal relations with the Communists of Moravia, and their persistently attempted but always disappointed efforts to establish with the Reformed Church some alliance that, while allowing generous mutual tolerance on questions of doctrinal difference, should unite them for common religious ends, have already been mentioned.3 There seemed better hopes of combining with the Mennonites at Danzig, since the two bodies not only agreed in general in the field of doctrine, but closely harmonized on the conspicuous subject of baptism. At the synod at Ráków fl 1613, therefore, negotiations were authorized, and representatives were appointed to discuss with the Mennonites a plan of union. The conference held, however, disappointed their hopes. 4

Two years later a letter reached the Synod by which liberal churches in Holland urgently invited a visit from the brethren in Poland. The invitation was accepted, and Smalcius and Völkel were deputed, but before they could reach the Dutch border a war that had broken out compelled them to turn back. 5 When, however, shortly afterwards the Remonstrants in the Reformed Church of Holland were being bitterly persecuted by the strict Calvinists, and their ministers were deprived of their pulpits, and many of them had to leave the country for a time, the brethren at Ráków, learning of this, sent Jonas Schlichting, a young man of great promise who had lately been a student under the Remonstrant professor Episcopius at Leiden, to offer them assistance and a welcome in Poland. This was the beginning of ever closer and warmer relations between Socinians and Remonstrants. Several of the latter 6 did in fact visit Poland and were cordially received there. From this time on the Socinian scholar and traveler Martin Ruar conducted an active correspondence with me Remonstrant ministers Naeranus (van der Neer), father and son, and so long as he lived endeavored to promote a closer approach between the two bodies.7 At length in 1627, when the Remonstrants had been permitted to return to Holland and enjoy exercise of their religion, Ruar began to discuss with Naeranus the subject of a union of the two confessions. To promote this project, the Synod commissioned Ruar to go to Holland, which he did in 1632 in company with a number of other ministers. 8 But the time was not yet ripe, for the two confessions were not close enough in their teachings to make an attempt at union advisable. Each side wished first to convert the other to its own views; though one fruit of the sympathetic relations then cultivated was a little book designed to increase a spirit of mutual religious tolerance, 9 which was later of great influence in both Holland and England. Meanwhile the Socinians were forced to go their way alone, cut off from any close religious fellowship save with their brethren in Transylvania. A generation later, however, when they were banished from Poland, it was in Holland that the exiles had from both Remonstrants and Mennonites the kindest welcome, and from Remonstrant sources, through the efforts of Naeranus, that they received the most generous material aid.

In quite another direction the Socinians at the beginning of this period for a short time entertained an illusory hope of widely extending their field of influence—namely, in Russia. When the Czar Ivan the Terrible died in 1584 he left a young son Demetrius, and this son was supposed to have been murdered in childhood. But about 1600 a young man emerged from obscurity claiming that he himself was Demetrius, who had escaped death and until now had been kept in hiding. He had for some time been in one of the Socinian schools at Hoszcza in Volhynia, and had been confirmed in that faith; 10 and the Socinian leaders, believing in his genuineness and sincerity, therefore entertained great hopes of his influence in their favor, if he should come to the throne. Both in Russia and in Poland he won considerable support for his claim; and late in 1604 he invaded Russia with an army and defeated the forces of the Czar Boris. When a few months later the Czar suddenly died, Demetrius seized the crown that he claimed was rightfully his. Hence in 1605 the Synod sent to Moscow a delegation of five to enlist his active interest in their cause. Demetrius, however, had diplomatically sought wider support for his own cause by professing to be first a Roman and then a Greek Catholic; and the mission, after six months, returned disillusioned to Poland. Shortly afterwards Demetrius fell a victim to his enemies. He was only the first of three successive pretenders. It is now generally believed that he was an impostor, very possibly deluded by those that had brought him up and had made him a tool for their own political ends.11

With more conspicuous means of spreading their cause thus denied them, the Socinians had recourse to the slower but surer means of personal propaganda with individuals. This was carried on in two ways: through the extensive circulation of printed books, and through the missionary efforts of emissaries systematically sent to other lands. During this period the press at Ráków was very active in the publication of works by Socinian authors. The unpublished writings of Socinus followed one another in rapid succession; the controversial works of Smalcius issued in a steady stream. Commentaries on books of the Bible, or essays on various doctrines, followed. Any attack from Calvinists or Jesuits at home, or from Lutherans abroad, was sure of a prompt and vigorous reply. All these, being the work of the ablest minds and of competent scholars, after having first received the scrutiny and revision of the Synod, were set forth in superior typography, and commanded attention wherever they went. 12 They were subsidized from general funds or from private gifts, and were sent in large numbers into the countries of the west. The comparative frequency with which, after well over three hundred years, books from the Ráków press were still offered for sale by dealers in old books bears witness to their wide circulation; and the long series of ambitious works by theologians, and the steady swarm of students’ dissertations or essays at the Protestant universities, which during more than a century kept up an almost ceaseless attack against Socinian doctrines, are evidence of how seriously these Socinian books were regarded, and of how widely their influence was felt and feared. How effective they were in making proselytes, even in the face of the most bitter opposition, is to be seen in such names as those of Crellius, Smalcius, Ostorodt, Völkel, Ruar, Schomann, Schlichting, Stegmann, Wolzogen and others, all of them German converts, who rose to leadership among the Socinians, and contributed immensely to the strength of their cause.

Yet more noteworthy was the influence of scholarly Socinian travelers that went abroad with missionary ends more or less in view Open and avowed missionary propaganda or organization of Socinian churches in other lands would of course not have been allowed; but Polish noblemen were accustomed to send their sons to western Europe to complete their education by travel and by study at foreign universities. Two or three would often go at a time, with a tutor to supervise their studies and have an eye to their behavior. The tutor was likely to be a young theological graduate, or even an older minister, and he would take with him a stock of books for loan or distribution, overlooking no opportunity for religious discussion with such foreign scholars as he might meet. These secret missionaries easily won friends by their noble birth, good breeding and fine scholarship, their freedom from the usual theological rancor, their generous tolerance in discussion, and most of all their emphasis on the importance of freedom of conscience; and they would forward to Ráków copies of any works published against Socinianism. Thus the Socinians had emissaries with their student retinue more or less frequently at most of the Protestant universities of Holland and Germany—Leiden and Franeker, Strassburg, Marburg, Heidelberg, Wittenberg, Jena, Helmstedt, Rostock—who cautiously broached their views and loaned their books. Hence in time a good many of the Protestant clergy in Holland and in France, and some even in Germany, became affected by Socinian views,13 to the great alarm of the more orthodox; while even Catholic circles such as those of the Jansenists were not wholly untouched. Distinguished men like Grotius, then living in exile in France, the liberal Calvinist Sorbičre and the Catholic Mersenne, carried on amicable exchange of views with the brethren of Ráków.

Of all these interesting academic hot-beds of Socinianism, one became so notorious that it deserves more than casual mention. At Altdorf, a few miles distant from Nurnberg, there was early in the seventeenth century a flourishing academy (given the rank of a university in 1623, and eventually absorbed by Erlangen in 1809), which was patronized by Nurnberg as its own, and had an able faculty and attracted many foreign students, especially from Poland.14 Among its earlier graduates was one Ernst Soner, who in the course of his post-graduate studies abroad spent some time at Leiden, at the very time when Ostorodt and his companion arrived there, as mentioned in the previous chapter.15 He formed a close intimacy with them, and became a ready convert to their faith. In due time Soner became a professor at Altdorf, where he was one of the most popular teachers. He maintained a secret correspondence with his Socinian friends in Poland, and cultivated confidential relations with such students as came thence to Altdorf, often bringing books fresh from the Ráków press, and cautiously spreading their views among susceptible fellow-students. While exercising the greatest caution as to what he did, Soner embraced the opportunity which his most private courses gave him, to rouse debatable questions in the minds of susceptible students, and to direct the course of their thought; and all this so inoffensively that when he met premature death by an incurable disease no one had entertained serious doubts of his orthodoxy. As the movement quietly spread, it developed into what was in effect a secret religious fraternity, whose members held meetings in one another’s rooms, and there observed the Lord’s Supper after the Socinian manner. About twenty students in all were concerned in the movement, and they were known for their devout piety and their exemplary lives.

After but seven years of fruitful teaching, Soner himself died in 1612, and his disciples, bereft of his guidance, mostly scattered to do missionary work in other centers. Of these one of the earliest was Johannes Krell (Crellius), who scenting danger fled in 1612 to Ráków, where he later became Rector of the College, and the most distinguished scholar among the Socinians. Another was Martin Ruar, who left Altdorf to spread the doctrine at Strassburg, and later became the most energetic propagator of Socinianism in foreign lands. Ere long, how ever, reports began to transpire of what had been going on behind the scenes, and the authorities of the Academy instituted a thorough investigation. Students under suspicion were examined, whereupon all but one denied any guilt. Two of the group, who had gone to spread their views at other universities, were brought back under guard, imprisoned, and labored with, until in view of what they might other wise have to suffer, their resistance was finally broken down, and they made a solemn public recantation. Thus Socinianism was driven out of Altdorf, where it had been systematically cultivated and zealously promoted. In other universities, however, the same leaven continued silently to work wherever Socinian students were to be found, and through them it tended quietly to spread in the land.

Even at its most vigorous period the Minor Church was quite the smallest of the four Protestant confessions in Poland. No complete list of all the congregations during its century of existence is extant, and the synod records from which such a list might best be made up are, so far as has been discovered, no longer extant. Merczyng 16 compiled from the best sources available a list of 73 congregations in Poland and 4 in exile; of which 13 were in Lithuania and 7 in Great Poland, the greatest number being in the three Palatinates nearest Kráków, and in Volhynia; but the list is certainly quite incomplete. It is recorded that in a largely attended synod at Ráków in 1611, 400 persons partook of the Lord’s Supper; and that in 1618, at the largest gathering hitherto, 459 persons partook. 17 It would therefore probably not be going beyond bounds to estimate that first and last there were at least 125 Socinian congregations in Poland. 18 But many of these must have been short- lived, crushed by persecution or lost by a change of patron to one of another faith. Hardly one could trace its history throughout from 1565 to 1660. One of the most competent students of the movement estimates that at its most flourishing period it numbered not more than a thou sand families, foreigners included. 19 Hardly a dozen of the congregations were in large towns. The rest were rural or village congregations on the estates of nobles, the minister being to all intents and purposes the patron’s domestic chaplain, and the congregation being largely composed of his retainers. In the management of church affairs the influence of the gentry predominated, although in the congregations in the larger towns commoners and artisans took an active part. Yet although the Minor Church in its whole history could lay claim to but two great magnates in Lithuania and a half-dozen more in the distant Ukraine, 20 and only nine ‘Arian’ names are found in the list of lay Senators, 21 still for its size none had a more distinguished company of adherents. One of the most famous of these, writing in defence of their religious liberties soon after the Socinians had been banished from Poland, gives a list four or five pages long of early Antitrinitarians and later Socinians who had held public offices and dignities of highest distinction in the Kingdom, 22 and another declared in a petition to the Elector of Brandenburg about 1670, that in Poland and Lithuania not a family was found that was distinguished for its ancestry, services or wealth, including generals, princes and even the reigning King himself, which was not bound by ties of blood or marriage to some of the Socinians. 23

During this vigorous period in its history the Minor Church was well organized and efficiently administered by faithful ministers and de voted lay leaders. In the essentials of polity it adhered closely to that of the Reformed Church from which it had sprung in 1565, though in time modifications were naturally made as experience suggested. The principles and practices of the church organization were, however, not formally codified until considerably later in the Ecclesiastical Polity of Peter Morzkowski (Morscovius—not to be confounded with the previously mentioned Moskorzowski, Moscorovius) 24 This work, which represents the usages and ideals of the Socinian congregations at the middle of the seventeenth century, is in three books, covering 1) the general principles of church law, 2) the duties of the church officers, and 3) the church discipline. The matter is set forth in a series of ‘aphorisms,’ or concise statements of principles, which are then expanded as fully as necessary, and illustrated by reference to New Testament usage or to the writings of the Fathers as authority. Especial emphasis is laid on the office of the ministry, its sacred character and duties; and interesting detailed suggestions are offered as to the preparation and delivery of sermons. Baptism of infants is not satictioned, but a rite of laying on of hands is substituted by way of recognizing the sacred obligation of parents in the rearing of their children. Adults are baptized by immersion, signifying that they recognize their obligation to live a Christian life; but rebaptism is not insisted on for any that were baptized in infancy. The Lord’s Supper is not a sacrament but a commemorative rite, by which we are reminded of our baptismal vows. Much stress is laid on pastoral duties and a conscientious pastoral concern for the life of members of the church.

The administration of the affairs of the Minor Church was directed by its Synod, an annual assembly of all the pastors, elders and deacons of the whole body to provide in general for the welfare of the church.25 There appears to have been in theory one general Synod inclusive of all congregations in both Poland and Lithuania; but in actual practice the Lithuanian churches, widely separated from those in Poland, not only in space but also in their doctrinal and social tendencies, seem in their provincial or local synods more or less to have gone their own way, though when important issues were in question delegates from Poland would sometimes be sent to the synod meetings in Lithuania or vice versa. The earlier synods met at widely scattered points, though most often at Lublin and Chmielnik; but beginning with 1611 all synods with the exception of three at Lublin were held at Ráków until its destruction in 1638, and after that generally in more remote places in the southeast.26

Besides the annual general Synod, there were also apparently local synods in various districts for settling questions of local interest. These seem to have been held only irregularly as occasion demanded. Matters not settled in these could be carried up to the general Synod for decision. In addition to the formal synods, groups of ministers from time to time met at Ráków to discuss points of theology, and these were sometimes protracted for days or even weeks as aspects of doctrine were threshed out in what were in effect theological seminars. But as time went on, attention was centered less on doctrine than on the practical application of the principles of Christianity in the daily life of individuals or their duties to the State.

At meetings of the Synod, which lasted from one to two weeks, 27 there were two presiding officers, one a minister, the other a layman. There were prayers at the opening of the sessions, and at intervals thereafter. In the conduct of business, letters were read from persons unable to be present, or from other churches, and appropriate answers were authorized. Reports were made on the state of the churches, and the financial reports of their deacons were scrutinized. From the general treasury funds were voted for the support of feeble congregations or the foundation of new ones; assistance was given to needy promising students for the ministry, as also for those of special ability who were sent abroad for advanced study at foreign universities. Support was voted for retired ministers, and aid was granted for widows and children of those deceased, to such as were suffering persecution for their faith, and to prisoners or others suffering from war or public calamity. Any disorderly ministers were censured or removed from their office; young men suitably trained for the ministry were examined, and were ordained and appointed to their stations; and able men were sent abroad for purposes of propaganda.

Especial attention was given to schools under the direction of the Synod in connection with the larger congregations, and their Rectors and teachers were appointed by it; while private tutors for the sons of noble patrons at home or on their travels were chosen from the older and abler scholars. Stipends for ministers and teachers were paid by the Synod from common funds which were contributed by the various churches as apportioned to them by the Synod, and were supplemented by gifts from wealthy individuals. The Synod financed the publication of such religious works or school texts as were judged important, approved or revised their manuscripts, and subsidized the authors.

Questions of doctrine and of morals were earnestly discussed, often with much feeling, yet in a spirit so tolerant as often to win the admiration of those outside the church. Regulation of the private life of the brethren in accordance with Christian standards was a matter of serious concern, and discussion was often had of raising the standard of discipline in the congregations and in the moral life of the members. Even secular matters sometimes came into consideration, when members dissatisfied with the decisions of the civil courts, especially as to questions of property, appealed them to the Christian judgment of the Synod. Thus the Synod sought to deal effectively with all matters of general concern to members of the church; and when all its affairs were at length completed the session concluded with a solemn celebration of the Lord’s Supper.28

In the earlier history of the Minor Church it had a titular head called Superintendent, chosen from one of the leading ministers, who convoked and presided over synods, visited the churches, and exercised general supervision over the Church as a whole, assisted by clerical or lay colleagues and district Elders. But after a short generation we hear no more of this office. In fact, the polity of the Minor Church seems to have grown much more simple, and its administration much freer, than that of the Reformed Church from which it was separated, and to have depended much more upon the weight of moral influence than upon administrative regulations.

The organization of the local congregations was simple. 29 At the head was the Patron, on whom, after the stipend granted the Pastor by the Synod, devolved the main responsibility for the material affairs of the church on his estate. Next after him was the Pastor, who instead of being chosen by the Patron or the congregation was appointed by the Synod, and after solemn ordination was installed by delegates in its name. He was assisted by Elders and Deacons, who attended respectively to the spiritual and the temporal details of the congregation. The Pastor’s office was to conduct daily prayers, and to preach twice on Sunday, and also on Wednesday and Friday. The form of worship was plain and non-liturgical, consisting of a hymn and a prayer at the opening and the close of the service, together with a scripture lesson and a sermon on a chosen text or passage, the whole lasting about an hour, and followed by an examination of the young as to the main points of the sermon.30

Those wishing to become members of the church (normally at the age of fourteen) were before receiving their first communion prepared by the Pastor through careful instruction in its doctrine. Then, after ex pressing before the church their earnest purpose to lead a Christian life, they were baptized by immersion in some convenient body of water, and then received the sacrament. 31 By no means the least of the Pastor’s duties was that of keeping careful watch over the members of his flock as to their faithful observance of religious duties, and their manner of life, and to reprove and warn them when necessary. This watchfulness over the lives of individual members was much more care fully observed by the Socinians than by other Protestant sects, 32 and it centered in the regular practice of ‘church discipline,’ which is to the modern mind one of the most striking features of the Minor Church. Discipline had been early practiced, and is well defined in Schomann’s Catehism33 as ‘the frequent reminding of individuals of their duty, and the warning of such as sin against God or their neighbors, first privately, and then also publicly before the whole assembly, and finally the removal of the stubborn from the communion of the saints, that they may be ashamed and repent, or else be eternally lost.’ Such discipline was commonly practiced four times a year just before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. In preparation for this solemn rite the congregation would meet on Saturday afternoon for worship and to confess their sins before God. Here, in a private session for members only, a searching examination was made of the conduct and conscience of each member, and unsettled grievances were reported. This was followed by exhortation and correction from the Pastor or from fellow-members, and finally by expressions of repentance; 34 while the unrepentant were forbidden to come to the supper, and might even be ostracized by the other members. This periodical self and discipline was no merely conventional form, but by all was taken very seriously. It had the tendency to maintain a high standard of conduct among the Socinians, which won them sincere respect, even from those that most disagreed with their doctrines. In fact, the Catholic historian whom we have more than once quoted declares that Polish ‘Arianism’ was the most influential page in Polish religious history, and that one reason why its adherents did not become more numerous was that its moral demands were too strict. 35

The Socinians held the Lord’s Supper in extreme reverence, and counted it a great disgrace to be forbidden it, and one of the greatest misfortunes to, be prevented from being present at it. The rite was celebrated on Christmas Easter, Whitsunday, and the Sunday after Michaelmas. No one that could possibly attend was willingly absent. On these occasions scattered members would gather from great distances, and to those dispersed abroad, far from any church, ministers were sent from time to time to administer the rite.

One more duty of the Pastor deserves mention. As an inheritance from a day before the Reformation when education was a care of the Church, the Protestant confessions accepted responsibility for the schooling of their children, not only in religious but also in secular learning. In perhaps a dozen of the larger congregations well staffed schools or academies were maintained by the Synod as a normal department of church work. Of these Ráków was of course the chief; but in the smaller congregations it fell to the Pastor not only to catechise his young people in preparation for joining the church, but also to be responsible for rudimentary subjects. An assistant Pastor or a teacher would often be assigned to this work; while on the other hand a nobleman might be given a private tutor for his children.

 

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