A Tolerant Kingdom in an Intolerant Age

“EACH MAY EMBRACE THE RELIGION THAT HE PREFERS WITHOUT ANY COMPULSION, AND MAY BE FREE TO SUPPORT PREACHERS OF HIS OWN FAITH.”

IF YOU had to venture a guess as to when those words were written, what would you say? Many would assume that they form part of some modern-day constitution or bill of rights.

You may be surprised to learn, however, that this declaration was made over 400 years ago​—and in a land that was, in a sense, like an island of tolerance in a sea of intolerance. What land was it? First, consider some background to the story.

Intolerance the Norm

Religious intolerance was common throughout the Middle Ages, and it found increased fervor in the 16th century. Religion fanned the flames of ghastly, bloody wars in such lands as England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Between 1520 and about 1565, some 3,000 people were executed as heretics in Western Christendom. Almost any questioning of values and ideas​—particularly in the area of religion—​was likely to meet with an intolerant reaction.

One Catholic Church teaching that had long been shrouded in controversy was the Trinity​—the belief that God is made up of three persons. In fact, historian Earl Morse Wilbur explains that it “was the subject of much debate in the Middle Ages among Catholic theologians, including even Popes themselves.” However, such debate rarely filtered down to the common man, who was expected to accept such doctrines on faith as “divine mysteries.”

Yet, some in the 16th century chose to go against tradition and examine the Scriptures in an attempt to clarify such mysteries. Their motto was sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). Those who rejected the Trinity doctrine​—some of whom were later called Unitarians, as opposed to Trinitarians—​often became the object of intense persecution by Catholics and Protestants alike. They printed their widely read works under pseudonyms and hid themselves away to avoid persecution. Anti-Trinitarians were also at the forefront in the fight for tolerance. Some, such as the Spanish theologian Michael Servetus, even paid for their convictions with their lives. *

United by Tolerance

Rather than fighting religious wars or persecuting dissenters, one country adopted a radically different approach. That country was Transylvania, then an autonomous principality, now a part of Romania in Eastern Europe. Hungarian historian Katalin Péter explains that Transylvania’s Dowager Queen Isabella  “sought to stay out of religious conflict by taking on the role of defender of all denominations.” Between 1544 and 1574, the Transylvanian Parliament, or Diet, passed 22 laws granting freedom of religion.

For example, following the Diet of Torda in 1557, the queen, jointly with her son, decreed that “each person [may] maintain whatever religious faith he wishes, with old or new rituals, while We at the same time leave it to their judgment to do as they please in the matter of faith, just so long, however, as they bring no harm to bear on anyone at all.” This law has been called “the first legislation guaranteeing freedom of religion in any country.” Religious tolerance reached its zenith in Transylvania under Isabella’s son John II Sigismund, who assumed direct rule in 1559.

Public Debate

Another key figure in the anti-Trinitarian movement in Transylvania was an Italian physician named Georgio Biandrata. His doubts over the Trinity were probably fostered during the time he spent in Italy and Switzerland, where many anti-Trinitarian refugees had found shelter. After removing to Poland, Biandrata did much to promote the Minor Church, later known as the Polish Brethren. * In 1563, he was appointed physician and counselor to Sigismund and moved to Transylvania.

Another educated figure in Transylvania who questioned the Trinity was Francis Dávid, superintendent of the Reformed Church and the court preacher. Regarding the complex teachings related to the Trinity, he wrote: “If these things are necessary for salvation, it is certain that no poor peasant Christian is saved, because he could never understand them in all his life.” Together, Dávid and Biandrata published  a book containing some of the writings of Servetus; they dedicated it to Sigismund.

Controversy over the Trinity began to swell, and with it came demand for a public debate on the subject. In line with the principle sola Scriptura, Biandrata held that at such debates only Scriptural, not philosophical, language should be used. Following an inconclusive debate in 1566, Sigismund gave the anti-Trinitarians a printing press to spread their ideas.

Biandrata and Dávid set about their task with vigor, producing the book De falsa et vera unius Dei Patris, Filii, et Spiritus Sancti cognitione (The False and True Knowledge of the Unity of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). The book included a historical examination of those who refused to believe the Trinity. One chapter contained pictures that were evidently intended to ridicule the way the Trinity was portrayed in artwork in various churches. Opponents were shocked, saying that the images were scandalous, and they tried to destroy all copies. Discussions multiplied as a result of the controversial publication. In response, Sigismund scheduled a second debate.

Victory for Unity

The debate started at five o’clock in the morning on March 3, 1568. It was held in Latin and lasted ten days. The Trinitarian side was led by Peter Melius, leader of the Transylvanian Reformed Church. He and those arguing in favor of the Trinity used the creeds, the Church Fathers, Orthodox theology, and the Bible. On the other hand, Dávid appealed to the Bible alone. Dávid identified the Father as God, the Son as being subject to the Father, and the spirit as the power of God. Deeply interested in religious matters, Sigismund took part, believing that discussion was the best way to bring out the truth. His presence helped to ensure a free and open, if somewhat heated, discussion.

The debate was considered a victory for the anti-Trinitarians. Dávid was given a hero’s welcome in his home town of Kolozsvár (now Cluj-Napoca, Romania). Tradition has it that upon his arrival, he stood on a large boulder on a street corner and spoke of his beliefs so convincingly that he persuaded everyone to accept his teachings.

Conversion and Death

Previous debates had been held in Latin, a language understood only by the educated. Dávid, however, wanted to carry his message to the people. So with Sigismund’s approval the next debate was held in the Hungarian language at Nagyvárad (now Oradea, Romania) on October 20, 1569. Again, Sigismund acted as moderator between the two sides.

The Trinitarian Peter Melius declared that in a vision the previous night, the Lord had revealed to him his true nature. The king replied: “Pastor Peter, if last night you were instructed as to who is the Son of God, what, I ask, have you been preaching before? Certainly up to this moment you have been misleading the people!” When Melius verbally attacked Dávid, Sigismund reproved him, reminding the Trinitarian that “faith is the gift of God” and that  “conscience cannot be forced.” In an address closing the debate, the king said: “We demand that in our dominions there shall be freedom of conscience.”

Following the debate, Sigismund and most of his court were won over to the Unitarian side. In 1571 a royal edict was issued granting legal recognition to the Unitarian Church. Transylvania was the only State where Unitarians were on equal footing with Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists, and Sigismund is known as the only king ever to have accepted the anti-Trinitarian faith. Tragically, shortly thereafter, the 30-year-old king was injured while on a hunting trip with Dávid and Biandrata, and he died a few months later.

His successor, the Catholic Stephen Báthory, reaffirmed the decree protecting recognized religions but indicated that he would tolerate no further changes. At first, Stephen said that he was the ruler of people, not their consciences. But he soon restricted the printing of books, a principal means of sharing faith. Dávid lost his position, and other Unitarians were removed from court and public office.

When Dávid began teaching that Christ should not be worshiped, an order was issued forbidding him from preaching. Despite this ban, Dávid preached twice the following Sunday. He was arrested, charged with religious “innovation,” and sentenced to life imprisonment. He died in the royal dungeon in 1579. Before dying, Dávid wrote on his cell wall: “Neither the sword of popes . . . nor the image of death will halt the march of truth. . . . I am convinced that after my destruction the teachings of the false prophets will collapse.”

Kingly Lessons

King John Sigismund promoted education, music, and the arts. His life, however, was short, and he was often ill. His reign itself was plagued by threats from within​—at least nine plots were made against his life—​and from without, as foreign powers encouraged rebellions. This tolerant king has often been judged harshly on the basis of his religious views. One opponent later said that the king “doubtless went to hell.”

However, historian Wilbur helps to put things in perspective: “In the year when King John [Sigismund] issued his final charter, guaranteeing full religious liberty to even the most bitterly opposed of all the reformed sects, Protestant theologians were still praising Calvin for having burned Servetus alive, the Inquisition was shedding Protestant blood in the Netherlands, . . . and more than 40 years were still to pass before persons ceased to be burned at the stake in England for holding wrong religious opinions.”

Indeed, as one commentator put it, “by almost any standard​—certainly by the standard of his own time—​King John Sigismund was a remarkable ruler. . . . He made toleration the hall-mark of his reign.” Realizing that religious peace was in the State’s best interests, he became an ardent defender of freedom of conscience and religious liberty.

In our own day, when religious intolerance still rears its ugly head, we may find food for thought in that tiny kingdom of long ago. During a brief period, Transylvania was indeed a tolerant kingdom in an intolerant age.

[Footnotes]

^ par. 8 See Awake!, November 22, 1988, pages 19-22.

[Blurb on page 14]

“Conscience cannot be forced . . . we demand that in our dominions there shall be freedom of conscience.”​—King John II Sigismund

[Pictures on page 12, 13]

Georgio Biandrata

Pages from the book produced by Biandrata and Dávid, including two of the pictures that shocked Trinitarians

Francis Dávid before the Diet of Torda

[Credit Lines]

Two Trinity line drawings: © Cliché Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris; all other photos: Országos Széchényi Könyvtár

[Picture Credit Line on page 14]

Pages 2 and 14: Országos Széchényi Könyvtár