The “Polish Brethren”​—Why Were They Persecuted?

In 1638 the Polish parliament dealt a severe blow to a small religious group known as the Polish Brethren. A church and a printing press belonging to the group were destroyed. The University of Raków was closed down, and the professors who had taught there were sent into exile.

Twenty years later, the parliament went a step further. It ordered every member of the group, which may have numbered 10,000 or more, to leave the country. How did the situation become so critical in a country that, at the time, was considered one of the most tolerant in all of Europe? What had the Polish Brethren done to deserve such severe treatment?

IT ALL started when a serious breach developed within Poland’s Calvinist Church. A major point of contention was the doctrine of the Trinity. Leaders of a progressive movement within the church rejected the doctrine as unscriptural. This angered church leadership and caused the progressive movement to break away.

Calvinists called the dissidents Arians, * but the adherents of the new group preferred to call themselves Christians or the Polish Brethren. They are also known as Socinians, after Laelius Socinus, an Italian who was influenced by Servetus and whose nephew Faustus Socinus traveled to Poland and became prominent in the movement.

At that time a Polish nobleman, Jan Sienieński, sought to give the new church what he called “a quiet, secluded place” in which to grow. Exercising a special privilege that had been granted by the king of Poland, Sienieński founded the town of Raków, which later became the center of Socinianism in Poland. Sienieński granted the citizens of Raków a number of rights, including the right to worship freely.

Craftsmen, doctors, pharmacists, townsfolk, and gentry of different denominations were attracted to the new town. In addition, ministers flocked there from Poland, Lithuania, Transylvania, France, and even England. However, not all these new arrivals shared the Socinians’ beliefs; so for the next three years, from 1569 to 1572, Raków became a site of endless theological discussions. With what result?

A House Divided

The Socinian movement itself became divided, with those who embraced more radical views taking one side and those whose ideas were more moderate taking the other. Despite their differences, however, the beliefs they held in common were distinctive. They rejected the Trinity; they refused to practice infant baptism; they generally did not bear arms and  often would not hold public office. * They also denied the existence of hell as a place of torment. In all of this, they ignored popular religious traditions.

Both Calvinist and Catholic clergy mounted fierce opposition against the group, but Socinian ministers took advantage of the atmosphere of religious tolerance, promoted by such Polish kings as Sigismund II Augustus and Stephen Báthory, to teach their ideas.

The Landmark Work of Budny

A Calvinist translation of the Bible, which was widely used at the time, was not meeting the needs of many readers. The translation was rendered, not from the original languages, but from the Latin Vulgate and a contemporary French translation. “Faithfulness and accuracy of thought were lost in the quest for beautiful style,” says one authority. Many errors were introduced. Therefore, a well-known scholar named Szymon Budny was invited to correct the translation. He decided that it would be easier to produce a completely new translation than to correct the old one. Budny set to work on the project about 1567.

When translating, Budny thoroughly analyzed every word and its variants in a way no one in Poland had done before. Where the Hebrew text posed difficulties, he indicated the literal translation in marginal notes. When necessary, he coined new words and tried to use the simple, everyday Polish of his time. His goal was to present the reader with a faithful and accurate translation of the Bible.

Budny’s translation of the entire Bible was published in 1572. However, the publishers of the work corrupted his translation of the Greek Scriptures. Undeterred, Budny set to work on a revised version, which was completed two years later. Budny’s brilliant translation of the Greek Scriptures was superior to the previous Polish translations. Additionally, in many places he restored the divine name, Jehovah.

During the final part of the 16th century and the first three decades of the 17th century, Raków, the capital of the movement, became a religious and an intellectual center. There the leaders and writers of the Polish Brethren published their tracts and works.

They Promoted Education

The Polish Brethren’s publishing work began to gain momentum about 1600 when a printing press was set up in Raków. The press was capable of producing both small treatises and large books in several languages. As a printing center, Raków soon rivaled the best in Europe. It is believed that as many as 200 publications were printed on that press during the next 40 years. A nearby paper mill, owned by the Polish Brethren, supplied high-quality paper for this literature.

The Polish Brethren soon saw the need to educate their fellow believers and others. To that end, the University of Raków was founded in 1602. Sons of the Polish Brethren, as well as Catholic and Protestant boys, attended classes there. Although the university was a theological seminary, religion was not the only subject taught. Foreign languages, ethics, economics, history, law, logic, natural sciences, mathematics, medicine, and gymnastics were also part of the curriculum. The university had a large library, which continued to grow, thanks to the local printing press.

As the 17th century got under way, it seemed that the Polish Brethren would continue to flourish. Yet, that was not to be.

Church and State Fight Back

Zbigniew Ogonowski of the Polish Academy of Sciences explains: “At the end of the third decade of the 17th century, the situation of the Arians in Poland began to deteriorate quickly.” This was due to the increasingly bold activity of the Catholic clergy. The clergy used every possible means, including slander and libel, to discredit the Polish Brethren. The attack was  made easier by a changed political situation in Poland. The new Polish king, Sigismund III Vasa, was an enemy of the Polish Brethren. His successors, especially John II Casimir Vasa, likewise supported the efforts of the Catholic Church to thwart the Polish Brethren.

Matters came to a head with the alleged deliberate profanation of a cross by a few students from Raków. This incident became a pretext for the destruction of the capital of the Polish Brethren. The owner of Raków was accused before a parliamentary court of ‘spreading wickedness’ by supporting the University of Raków and its printing press. The Polish Brethren were accused of subversive activity, of engaging in orgies, and of living immoral lives. Parliament decided that Raków University should be closed and that the printing press and the church belonging to the Polish Brethren should be destroyed. The believers were ordered to leave town. The university professors were banished from the country under penalty of death. Some Polish Brethren moved to safer havens, like Silesia and Slovakia.

In 1658 parliament decreed that the Polish Brethren were to sell their property and move abroad within three years. Later, that deadline was shortened to two years. Anyone professing their beliefs after that would be executed.

Some Socinians settled in the Netherlands, where they continued their printing activity. In Transylvania a congregation functioned till the beginning of the 18th century. At their meetings, which were conducted up to three times a week, they sang psalms, listened to sermons, and read from a catechism that had been prepared to explain their teachings. In order to preserve the purity of the congregation, fellow believers were corrected, exhorted and, if necessary, expelled.

The Polish Brethren were students of God’s Word. They discovered some precious truths, and they unhesitatingly shared them with others. Eventually, however, they were scattered across Europe and found it more and more difficult to maintain their unity. In time, the Polish Brethren disappeared.

[Footnotes]

^ par. 5 Arius (250-336 C.E.) was an Alexandrian priest who argued that Jesus is inferior to the Father. The Council of Nicaea rejected his view in 325 C.E.​—See June 22, 1989, Awake! page 27.

^ par. 9 See Awake!, November 22, 1988, page 19, “The Socinians​—Why Did They Reject the Trinity?”

[Picture on page 23]

A house that had belonged to a Socinian minister

[Pictures on page 23]

Above: Raków today; to the right is the monastery founded in 1650 to eradicate any trace of “Arianism”; below: At this site the Catholic clergy set up a cross to provoke conflict with the Polish Brethren

[Picture Credit Line on page 21]

Title card of Biblia nieświeska by Szymon Budny, 1572