2020-10-31

UU Minute #14

Literal Body and Blood? Or Symbols?



Europe’s first proclamation of religious tolerance came out of Transylvania in 1557 – a product of the Diet led by Queen Isabella.
“In order that each might hold the faith which he wished, with the new rites as well as with the old, that this should be permitted him at his own free will.”
“The faith which he wished” meant either Catholic or Protestant – there were only two choices. By that time, the vast majority of Transylvania had become Protestant -- Catholic priests had been driven out, church property confiscated or given over to the Protestants -- so it was the Catholics who had more reason to be glad of the protections of official toleration. In fact, the greater and growing religious conflict in Transylvania was between two Protestant factions, over the Lord’s Supper.

It’s hard for us today to imagine how fierce and vicious a quarrel over something like that could be. The Lutherans held that the body and blood of Christ are present in the bread and wine; the Calvinists held that these are only symbols, and each side saw no worth or dignity in the people who didn’t affirm what they affirmed.

Queen Isabella died in 1559, leaving her then-19-year-old son, John Sigismund, to rule Transylvania. King John was Catholic then, but he would later convert to Lutheran for two years, and then to Calvinist for five years, before finally becoming the Unitarian King.

NEXT: Enter Giorgio Biandrata

2020-10-24

UU Minute #13

UU Minute #13: Isabella Returns to Transylvania



In 1551, Archduke Ferdinand’s Hapsburg forces took Transylvania, banishing Isabella and her then 11-year-old son back to Poland. After five years of exile, Isabella returned to Transylvania when Ottoman troops recaptured the region and invited her back. The Transylvanian Diet officially entrusted Isabella with a five-year regency on behalf of her now-16-year-old son.

Meanwhile, Protestantism had come to Transylvania. With religious tensions mounting, in 1557, Isabella signed an edict of religious toleration. Isabella declared, “every one might hold the faith of his choice . . . without offence to any . . . ” – provided, that is, that the “faith of his choice” was either Catholic or Lutheran. Even so,
“It was the first time since the political hegemony of Christendom had spread across the western world centuries before, that a national leader gave back to ordinary people the authority of their own consciences in matters of God and the soul” (Kendyl Gibbons).
The first time. And it came from a woman. And while that woman apparently remained Catholic herself to the end of her days, she was interested in Reformation ideas – and the values of freedom and reason by which she raised and taught her son, would lead King John Sigismund of Transylvania to become history’s only Unitarian monarch.
“Against all the odds, Isabella brought up a son who bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice, compassion, and human dignity; she saved the throne for him, and bequeathed him the concept of religious toleration that would not occur to the rest of Europe for centuries.” (Gibbons)
NEXT: Literal Body and Blood? Or Symbols?

2020-10-17

UU Minute #12

UU Minute #12: Isabella Banished



Unitarianism in Transylvania emerged in the turbulent politics of the time, fostered by Isabella, the dowager queen and regent who enacted Europe’s first edict of religious toleration, and her son, John Sigismund, Europe’s only Unitarian monarch ever.

As the 16th-century began, the Ottoman Empire covered Turkey, the Balkans, and Greece. In 1526, the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Suleiman crushed the Hungarian royal army in the Battle of Mohács and killed King Louis II. Hungary was then divided into three parts. The Ottoman Empire annexed one part. A second part was allowed to continue as a much-diminished Hungary. And a third part – Transylvania – was granted autonomy under the rule of John Zapolya – although paying annual tribute to the Ottomans.

Thirteen years later, in 1539, John Zapolya married Isabella, oldest child of the Polish King Sigismund. John Zapolya was 50 years old; Isabella was 20 – beautiful and very bright.

A year later, 1540, Isabella gave birth to a son, John Sigismund. Two weeks later, John Zapolya died from injuries sustained while subduing a rebellion. The young Isabella thus found herself ruler of Transylvania: regent on behalf of her infant son.

Archduke Ferdinand immediately moved to retake Transylvania for the Hapsburgs. With the military assistance of Sultan Suleiman, Isabella fended off Ferdinand for ten years – until, in 1551, Ferdinand’s forces prevailed. Isabella, with her then-11-year-old son, was banished back to Poland to live with her family.

Prospects looked very bleak for either of them to foster a new religion that endures to this day.

NEXT: Isabella Returns to Transylvania

2020-10-10

UU Minute #11

UU Minute #11: Transylvania, part 1



In 16th century Europe, the ideas of anti-trinitarianism and religious freedom went together – and they began to pop up in the thinking of a number of writers. We’ve mentioned the 1527 book by Martin Borrhaus’ De Operibus Dei, the first open questioning of the doctrine of the trinity in print in Europe – and the 1531 publication of Miguel Serveto’s On the Errors of the Trinity -- and Sebastian Castellio writing that “To kill a man is not to protect a doctrine. It is to kill a man.”

A smattering of other intellectuals of the time – especially after Miguel Serveto’s execution in 1553 -- were also writing to either criticize trinitarianism or advocate religious freedom – and whichever one of those two a writer might primarily emphasize, there would usually also be at least sympathy for the other one. These ideas began to find a home in two places: Transylvania and Poland.

Transylvania. It’s in what is now Romania. Here’s a map of Romania showing Transylvania as a central and western district.

And here’s a map showing how the Carpathian mountains curl around and provide a natural protection to Transylvania on three sides.

After the fall of Rome, various barbarian tribes lived and moved through there. Then the Magyars, Hungarians, conquered the region in 1003, and for 500 years it was part of Hungary. In 1526, Ottoman Turkey defeated Hungary and was content to allow the Transylvanian region be an independent country – a buffer between Hungary and Turkey.

Transylvania was an autonomous state for about a century and a half before being reabsorbed into Hungary and later Romania. During that brief time, autonomous Transylvania created and gave to Europe two amazing things: Unitarian churches and the first government edict of Religious Toleration. NEXT: Isabella Banished

2020-10-03

UU Minute #10

UU Minute #10: Serveto's Double Legacy



The roots of Unitarianism in Europe lie in two ideas:
  • Critique of the Doctrine of the Trinity, and
  • Support of religious toleration. 
Those two ideas are the double legacy of Miguel Serveto. First, he called into question the doctrine of the trinity. He paved the way for a Unitarian theology of the Unity of God, and also advanced the Universalist notion of the universal divinity of humanity. Second, his persecution and death sparked a movement toward tolerance and religious freedom.

On October 27, 1553, Miguel Serveto was burned at the stake in Geneva, Switzerland, with a copy of his book tied to his arm. Thousands of people have been put to death as heretics in Europe. In particular, the Anabaptists were slaughtered by the hundreds, and they too, rejected the doctrine of the trinity. What made Serveto so special?

For one thing, he argued his side with such evident intelligence. If the fervid passions of the generally lower-class Anabaptists could be written off as the spell of Satan, Serveto’s detailed rational argument, combined with the fact that it came from a respected medical doctor of an upper class family, landed differently. And so it was that from the crowd that watched him die, there arose the conviction that this should not be. Before his ashes were cold, cries for religious tolerance began to be heard. Calvin fell under criticism.

Though Calvin had convinced most of Christendom of Serveto’s error, he faced a growing feeling that that error did not warrant the stake. Books arguing for the toleration of heretics began to appear.

Sebastian Castellio’s booklet, "Against Calvin," notably declared, “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but to kill a man.” NEXT: Transylvania, part 1