UU Minute #25

The Empire Strikes Back

Italy in the middle of the 16th-century: A new hope. Innovative thinking about Christian doctrine was going on in southern Italy and in the Republic of Venice. But then comes the second movie: "The Empire Strikes Back." And the Church of Rome did indeed strike back.

In 1542, the inquisition was deployed in Italy. It found lack of faith disturbing. In southern Italy, the Neo-Platonic Academy of Bernardo Ochino, and other similar groups almost immediately ceased to exist. Among the Italian religious reformers that fled the Italian inquisition, two are of particular note: Giorgio Biandrata and Lelio Sozzini.

Biandrata would go to Poland and, as we have seen, to Transylvania, sowing anti-trinitarianism and support for religious toleration.

The other Italian important to Unitarian history who fled Italy during this period was Lelio Sozzini. Born in 1525 in Siennna, trained as a lawyer, Lelio Sozzini moved to Venice at age 21. His great passion was to relate human law to the law of god. Toward this end he carefully studied scripture, which study produced a growing conviction that the church of Rome had gone over to the dark side – fundamentally conflicting with both scripture and reason. Then: Lelio discovered the writings of Miguel Serveto, whose 1531 book, On the Errors of the Trinity, was not suppressed as successfully as the church wished. It convinced Lelio Sozzini to become a Jedi Padawan – I mean, to abandon the law and give himself entirely to the study of religion.

In 1547, with the Italian Inquisition closing in on rebel bases (antitrinitarian congregations) in Venice, Lelio Sozzini fled to Switzerland, and then to England, where, in 1548, he met Obiwan, I mean, Ochino, who had earlier fled Italy.

When Lelio Sozzini died in 1562 at the age of only 37, he left behind little more than a trunk of books and manuscripts – fatefully inherited by his nephew, Fausto Sozzini.

UU Minute #24

Doctrinal Innovation in Venice

As noted last time, Church Reformation in Italy had a more Renaissance and intellectual flavor than in Luther’s Germany. In Naples, the Neo-Platonic Academy, including Bernardo Ochino, called into question church teachings on:
  • Christ’s vicarious atonement,
  • the virgin birth,
  • the divinity of Jesus,
  • the resurrection, and
  • the trinity.
Meanwhile, in Northern Italy, the Republic of Venice was a sophisticated mercantile center, with commercial ties throughout the known world. The renown of its merchants extended to Shakespeare’s England.

Venice was used to diversity of custom and belief, and its economy was served by a broad tolerance. Moreover, Venetians, like the Germans, had a highly developed resentment of Rome’s interference. Thus, anyone whose religious opinions made them anathema elsewhere in Europe, might find a haven in Venice.

Some sources suggest that when Miguel Serveto was arrested in Geneva, he was on his way not to Naples, as reported in UU Minute number 9, but to Venice – to which Geneva was on the route.

The German Reformation focused on corrupt practices. The Reformation in Southern Italy focused on reform of doctrine. In Venice these two merged into a radical, anti-trinitarian movement. Serveto’s books were being circulated and finding approval among Venetian reformers as early as 1539 – one year before Transylvania’s King John was born.

In 1550, a Council of Venice representing some 60 anti-Trinitarian congregations adopted a 10-point statement of faith declaring:
  1. Christ is human, not God; born of Joseph and Mary, but filled with all the powers of God.
  2. Mary and Joseph had other sons and daughters after Christ.
  3. Where Scripture speaks of angels it means humans appointed by God for a given purpose.
  4. There is no Devil other than human imprudence.
  5. The wicked do not rise at the last day, but only the elect.
  6. There is no hell but the grave.
  7. When the elect die, they sleep until the judgment day, when all shall be raised.
  8. The souls of the wicked perish with the body, as do all other animals.
  9. Human procreation has from God the power of producing flesh and spirit.
  10. The elect are justified by faith alone, not by an atonement from Christ’s death.
(Source: Primarily David Bumbaugh, Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History, pp. 23-27.)

NEXT: The Empire Strikes Back

UU Minute #23

The Reformation in Italy

European Unitarianism emerged from the Protestant Reformation zeitgeist of the 16th century. This took various forms in different regions, and all the forms had influence on the burgeoning Unitarian movement. In Germany, where Martin Luther began the Reformation in 1517, there was a pre-existing resistance to Catholic Church power. Medieval Germany – called the Holy Roman Empire, though it wasn’t Holy, wasn’t Roman, and wasn’t an Empire – resented the financial demands from the Roman church, resented foreign influence from the Pope -- and Holy Roman Empire kings had been pushing back for centuries before Martin Luther came along. Luther’s success lay in harnessing this resentment against Papal power and influence into sympathy for his religious vision.

In Italy, on the other hand, the impetus for reformation was different. There, the Renaissance – with its reclamation of classical Greek and Latin learning -- was a bigger factor. When Italian intellectuals who had been reading Plato and Aristotle took up questions of church doctrine, they tended to do so in the academic pattern to which they were accustomed: they gathered in discussion groups.

One such group, calling itself the Neo-Platonic Academy, flourished in Naples for six years between 1535 and 1541. The group included Bernardo Ochino, mentioned earlier because his works helped liberalize Poland’s Queen Bona, mother of Transylvania’s Queen Isabella.

This “NeoPlatonic Academy” called into question church teachings on such subjects as Christ’s vicarious atonement, the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, and the trinity.

Meanwhile, in Northern Italy, centered around Venice, another version of the Reformation emerged.

NEXT: Doctrinal Innovation in Venice


UU Minute Christmas Special

Our Holiday

Unitarian History makes clear that Christmas is the Unitarian Holiday!

Prior to 1850, Christmas celebration was
"culturally and legally suppressed and thus, virtually non-existent. The Puritan community found no Scriptural justification for celebrating Christmas, and associated such celebrations with paganism and idolatry." (Wikipedia)
Then, a radical transformation of Christmas began, and Unitarians were at the forefront in most of the transforming.

Christmas today means putting a tree indoors, and decorating it. That was a practice in Germany, brought to the United States in the early 1800s by the Unitarian minister Reverend Charles Follen.

Christmas means Old Ebenezeer Scrooge’s heart opens up to compassion and joy. In 1843 a Unitarian named Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol. A Christmas Carol remains the most widely read-aloud book in the English-speaking world, and is theatrically performed in hundreds of venues around the country every year. Other popular Christmas tales such as "It's a Wonderful Life" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" are but re-workings of Charles Dickens' Unitarian gospel. Dickens’ tale of generosity, gratitude, and the joy of family gathering is fundamentally Unitarian.

Christmas means dashing through the snow, one-horse open sleighs, bells that jingle, and laughing, all the way. That’s the song “Jingle Bells,” by the Unitarian James Pierpont. "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is by Unitarian Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. John Bowring, who gave us "Watchman Tell Us of the Night," and Noel Regney, who wrote “Do you hear what I hear?” were also Unitarians.

Christmas also means a focus on ending war and violence. “Peace on Earth, to all goodwill,” say the angels in the gospel of Luke. For most of the history of Christendom, Luke’s angels have been taken as referring to a private, personal peace. Few imagined that peace on earth actually meant we should stop killing each other.

Then, in 1849, with a war in Europe, and the US war with Mexico weighing on his mind, Unitarian Minister Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote a carol, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” that made “peace on earth” about ending war.
"Beneath the angel strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong,
And man at war with man hears not
the love song which they bring,"
he decried.

His lyrics raised objections from a number of Christian conservatives of the time. They said, contemptuously, that Sears’ hymn was just the sort of thing you would expect of a Unitarian. They were right about that.

If Christmas season today is a time when our hopes turn to ending war and truly bringing peace on earth, it is because a Unitarian minister wrote a song inviting us to imagine the day,
"when peace shall over all the earth
its ancient splendors fling,
and the whole world give back the song
which now the angels sing."
This really is our holiday. From the Christmas tree, to the jingling bells, to the Scrooge story, to the message of peace on earth, Unitarians made Christmas what it is today.

UU Minute #22

Transylvanian Unitarianism Down to this Day

The Unitarian Church in Transylvania was first recognized by the 1568 Edict of Torda, which also established religious toleration among the four allowed religions: Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Unitarian. In its early years, the Unitarian Church attracted members in large numbers, and grew to 425 parishes.

Still the Catholics as well as both Protestant churches reviled the Unitarians as heretics. Transylvania’s King John died in 1571, just a couple years after officially converting to Unitarian himself. Having no heirs, he was succeeded by Istvan Bathory, a Catholic.

The press of Gyulafehérvár was taken away from the Unitarian control.

The Diet of 1572 did not dare to repeal the Edict of Toleration, so it prohibited anyone to change religion. The people of Transylvania had freedom of religion – but only once. A person could freely choose, once – and then was stuck with the choice.

Also in 1572, Ferenc David, whose mind was always probing and questioning, as Unitarian minds tend to do, went so far as to deny the necessity of invoking Jesus Christ in prayer. Prayer, he said, may be addressed simply to God. This was deemed to be a change in religion, and David was arrested and imprisoned. He died in prison 7 years later.

Without a sympathetic king, and without its leading advocate, Transylvanian Unitarians had a hard go of it for about a century, but the faith survived, even down to this day. Today, in Romania, there are 110 Unitarian priests and 141 places of worship. Church officials in Romania estimate 80,000 to 100,000 Romanians are Unitarian – an enduring legacy of the innovative thinking of Queen Isabella, her son, King John Sigismund, and the impassioned advocate of freedom, Ferenc David.

NEXT: The Reformation in Italy

UU Minute #21

The Connection: Reason

Unitarians have been around 450 years, and our history is rooted in two ideas:
  • rational critique of the trinity, and
  • tolerance of diversity of opinion.
Is there a logical connection between them, or is it an accident of history that these two ideas happened to come in the same package?

Actually, there is a logical connection: reason. It was the exercise of reason that produced the rational critique of trinitarianism. And the proper function of reason depends on the freedom allowed by tolerance. Any ideology that isn’t rationally defensible can only rely on authoritarian coercion to secure adherents.

Ferenc David, the Transylvanian theologian and King John Sigismund’s court preacher, was an impassioned advocate for both the unity of God and freedom of conscience. His words are part of Unitarian Universalism to this day, and appear in the back of our hymnal, reading number 566, which includes the words in David’s native Hungarian:
Egy Az Isten
– meaning, God is one. As selected, adapted, and arranged by UU minister Reverend Richard Fewkes, here is that reading from Ferenc David:
In this world there have always been many opinions about faith and salvation.
You need not think alike to love alike.
There must be knowledge in faith also.
Sanctified reason is the lantern of faith.
Religious reform can never be all at once, but gradually step by step.
If they offer something better, I will gladly learn.
The most important spiritual function is conscience, the source of all spiritual joy and happiness.
Conscience will not be quieted by anything less than truth and justice.
We must accept God’s truth in this lifetime. Salvation must be accomplished here on earth.
God is indivisible.
Egy Az Isten.
God is one.
NEXT: Transylvanian Unitarianism Down to this Day

UU Minute #20

The Edict of Torda

“...in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God.” (Edict of Torda, 1568)
The Edict of Torda, named for the Transylvanian town where it was adopted in 1568, gave state sanction to four religions: Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Unitarian. A congregation that was one of those variants of Christianity could not be persecuted, and could freely elect its preacher.

Queen Isabella had made the first move toward religious toleration about a decade before. In 1557, she decreed that Catholic and Lutheran would each be recognized and allowed. A bit later, Calvinism had been recognized.

King John Sigismund’s court preacher, Ferenc David, and his counselor and physician, Giorgio Biandrata, together launched a series of publications and took part in public debates about religion, each lasting from several days to over a week. David and Biandrata interwove arguments for a Unitarian theology and arguments for religious tolerance – and persuaded the King himself. It was David who was the powerful and passionate voice in Torda in 1568 calling on the delegates to adopt the edict that he brought before them.

In the centuries after Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation, all of Europe was embroiled in religious conflict – often violent. When every other leader in Europe was choosing a side and seeking by force to impose it throughout their realm – under the assumption that a populace that shared a government must also share a religion -- Transylvania alone had the wildly radical notion of religious freedom -- of using the powers of the state not to promote the state’s preferred religion, but to protect multiple religions.

NEXT: The Connection: Reason