Torda 451: A Deeper Truth

Today we are celebrating the Edict of Torda, which was a progressive milestone in religious toleration coming out of Transylvania in January 1568. If you haven’t been hanging around Unitarian Universalist churches for a while, you may never have heard of the Edict of Torda or the Diet of Torda. And the only association you might have with the place called Transylvania is Count Dracula. Now, I’m not going to claim here that the Edict is as big a deal as the Magna Carta or the US Bill of Rights or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But that’s the kind of company it keeps.

So you’d think that this minister could at least celebrate it in the proper year. And I remember going to a workshop at the UU General Assembly on the Edict in the summer of 2017 and there were going to be several other discussions online about the Edict in the months leading up to its 450th anniversary in January of 2018. But somehow, January of 2018 rolled around and Torda did not make it onto my sermon calendar. So this is a celebration of the 451st anniversary. Better late than never.

But many of you will say, why do we need to do this? The Unitarianism that was born in Europe out of the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century is very different from the Unitarianism that grew up in England and America as part of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. Does it really help us understand anything about contemporary Unitarian Universalism to learn more about events so long ago? That is a good question, and I hope by the time I’m finished you will agree with me that the answer is yes, that a good understanding of what happened at Torda not only affirms the central role of religious humility and toleration in our faith, but also puts that faith into the context of other world faiths including Judaism, Christianity in its Catholic and Protestant branches and even Islam.

After all we have our own versions of religious wars in this country, where the tolerance held up in the Edict of Torda is in short supply. We have just been through a government shutdown lasting more than a month where tolerance was hard to find.

Let me set some context for the Edict of Torda.

Last fall, I preached on the origins of Humanism, and we focused on the figures of Luther and Erasmus at the beginnings of the Protestant reformation. Luther, you may remember, set off the Reformation by posting his ninety-five theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg in October of 1517. We celebrated the 500th anniversary of that event in October of 2017. We locate the beginnings of the Unitarian faith later in that same sixteenth century, and an important geographical location is Transylvania.

Where is Transylvania? It is a region about the size of our state of Maine surrounded by mountains which lies east of Hungary, north of Romania, west of Moldova and south of Ukraine. Since the end of the First World War, Transylvania has been part of Romania, but at other stages of history it has been part of Hungary and a semi-independent nation.

Transylvania is important in Unitarian history because it is the place where a religion called Unitarianism took root as a recognized movement, and persisted down to the present day. There are at present 141 Unitarian churches in Transylvania. I was fortunate to visit several of them on a tour in 2006.

Now you just heard me say “a religion called Unitarianism” and you may wonder why I said that. We use the same name, but the churches in Transylvania are organized very differently than US or British Unitarian or UU churches. The Transylvanians have a catechism and are governed by bishops. We have congregational polity. Yet there are a great many similarities as well, as we will see.

What does the word Unitarian mean? At its most basic level, it means a religion which honors some view of the ministry of Jesus but rejects the doctrine of the trinity. “Unitarian” and “Trinitarian” are thus logically opposed concepts. If the Trinity is considered a basic belief in orthodox Christianity, as it is from the Council of Nicea forward, then Unitarianism is a heresy.

I need to add that in its historical contexts, Unitarianism in both its European and British and American branches meant more than a rejection of the Trinity; it had a lot to do with use of reason as opposed to emotion, demanding evidence rather than taking things on faith, reading the Bible critically as one would read any other book, and believing that humans had free will and could affect their ultimate fate by choosing good over bad courses of action. Unitarianism in the European context drew from the humanism espoused by Erasmus, and the American and British variety two centuries later drew from the Enlightenment.

But it all started with the rejection of the Trinity, and the key figure here is Michael Servetus, who was a Spanish self-educated scholar who mastered Greek, Hebrew and Latin, made an intense study of the Bible, and wrote a book arguing that the doctrine of the Trinity – God in three persons, with Jesus being both fully God and fully human – was found nowhere in the Bible. That book earned him a death sentence from the Catholic Inquisition in his native Spain, and he went underground for most of the rest of his life.

Servetus was keen to convince leaders of the Protestant Reformation, especially John Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland, that if they were going to differ with the Roman Catholic Church on such smaller issues as whether the body of Jesus was physically present at the Mass, they ought to go on to the much bigger issue and reject the idea of three Gods in one.

Servetus was so determined to try to get this message across that he went to Geneva and appeared in John Calvin’s church. Calvin promptly had him arrested, and Servetus was found guilty of heresy and burnt at the stake. The year was 1553.

Servetus’s martyrdom not only served to underscore that the Protestants could be just as intolerant as the Roman Catholics, but it also drew attention to his theological views. In the 1540s there had developed in Northern Italy a movement we call the Radical Reformation, and it spawned movements which still persist to this day, particularly the Anabaptists. It was centered for a time in Venice, until the Roman authorities got wind of it, and started a movement to crush it. Many Italian liberals escaped to Geneva, where they formed an Italian left-wing congregation. Two of the important members of this congregation were Laelius Socinus and a physician named George Biandrata. Laelius died of natural causes soon after moving to Geneva, but he exposed his nephew, whose name was Faustus Socinus, to these ideas.

Faustus took his anti-Trinitarian views to Poland and under his influence, a religious movement sprang up in the city of Racow and soon spread to others. There was an anti-Trinitarian religion in Poland for about a hundred years. It is usually called Socinian after Faustus Socinus, but it can also be called Unitarian. After a hundred years, the Polish church was wiped out by combined effort of the Roman Catholics and the Protestant.

Now let’s get back to Transylvania. I said that Transylvania is the northern part of Romania, and south of Romania is Bulgaria and southeast of Bulgaria is Istanbul, which was the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were Muslims, but they were a particular brand of Muslim which allowed their subjects to practice their own faith as long as they maintained a political loyalty to the Sultan. The city of Torda in Transylvania is 640 miles from Istanbul.

Now in the sixteenth century, just as Christian Europe was being convulsed by the Protestant Reformation, it also had to contend with the expansionist Ottomans. By 1526 the Ottomans had conquered the Balkans and Hungary. In the next century they would go on to lay siege to Vienna.

When I was in seminary, the story of Unitarian origins was told without much emphasis on the Ottomans. Back then, it focused on the figure of Francis David. David was a Transylvanian who trained for the Roman Catholic priesthood, but studied at Wittenburg and came away converted to Lutheranism. He rose through the ranks of the Lutheran church to become the Lutheran Bishop of Transylvania, then he got into a debate with the Calvinists, and though he won the debate, he decided the Calvinists were right, and duly converted to Calvinism, becoming the Calvinist Bishop of Transylvania. Then he read Servetus and decided Servetus was right, and he became the Unitarian Bishop of Transylvania.

By this time, George Biandrata had made his way to Kolosvar, the Transylvanian capital, after a period in Poland, and had become personal physician and a close counselor to the new King of Transylvania, John Sigismund. Through Biandrata’s influence, the king hired Francis David as his court preacher.

The King was interested in the new ferment in religious doctrine and called several conventions to have an open debate among Calvinists, Lutherans and Unitarians. The latest one, in 1568m is what is depicted on the front cover of the Order of Service, with Francis David standing in a shaft of light arguing the merits of the Unitarian point of view. The debate consumed 10 days, at the end of which time the King and all of his court were convinced that the Unitarians had it right, and all converted. The first and only time in history with a Unitarian monarch.

Now the pattern of the Reformation up to that point had been when one side won a religious argument, it promptly set about killing or persecuting all those who disagreed with it. In this case, however, King Sigismund issued the Edict which we are celebrating today.

That raises the question why it happened so differently? One of my colleagues, Susan Ritchie, set out to answer that question about ten years ago, and she shed a completely different light on this history, focusing not on the personality and brilliance of Francis David, but on the policies of the Ottomans.

Go back to 1540, when John Zapolya was a king with two kingdoms: Hungary and Transylvania. John was married to Queen Isabella, who descended from Polish royalty, and she bore him a son named John Sigismund, who would eventually be the first and only Unitarian monarch in world history. John Zapolya had had some struggles with Ferdinand, the brother of the Hapsburg Emperor, and had had to call on the Ottoman Emperor for help in that struggle. Shortly after his new baby was born, John Zapolya lay dying, but he instructed his counselors to make sure that his new son inherited both of his titles, which was a violation of the agreement he had made which bought peace with Ferdinand. Ferdinand, on hearing of this, raised an army and laid siege to the Hungarian capital, Buda. As Dr. Ritchie tells it,

In 1541, with Queen Isabella’s forces nearing collapse, Sultan Suleyman appeared in Buda with a large army, successfully repulsing Ferdinand. Suleyman claimed the capital of Buda and much of lower Hungary for his control while granting Isabella and her infant son Transylvania to rule independently, but under the ultimate control of the Ottoman State. After some years of political contrivance and redefinition, Transylvania developed into its new identity as a border state.”

So here the Ottomans are playing a military role to preserve a sort of independence for Transylvania, to keep it from being absorbed into the Hapsburg empire.

But what was the role of the Ottomans with respect to the vicious inter-religious conflicts in lands they controlled? Dr. Ritchie says the answer is not clear, but there is one story which is suggestive:

On August 24, 1548, the Sultan’s representative in Buda (in what is now Budapest) was requested by local authorities in Tolna to take action against the Hungarian Protestant pastor there, Imre Szigeti. Specifically, the Catholic authorities in Tolna, offended by Pastor Szigeti’s unapologetic and public advocacy of reformed ideas, asked that he either be killed or driven from the city for heresy. The Chief Intendant of the Pasha of Buda communicated to the authorities in Tolna that not only had the Pasha denied their request, but that he had also issued an edict of toleration which states in part that preachers of the faith invented by Luther should be allowed to preach the Gospel everywhere to everybody, whoever wants to hear, freely and without fear, and that all Hungarians and Slavs (who indeed wish to do so) should be able to listen to and receive the word of God without any danger. Because – he said – this is the true Christian faith and religion.”

This is in effect a decree of religious toleration issuing from the Ottoman authorities twenty years before the Edict of Torda. Dr. Richie goes on to say that you can’t draw a firm line between this incident and the Edict of Torda, but it suggests that the later edict may have been influenced by the Ottoman position.

There were other precursors to the Edict of Torda. Shortly after her return to Transylvania from exile in Poland, Queen Isabella issued a proclamation in 1557 that each person be allowed to maintain whatever religion he wishes, and called for a synod to debate matters of doctrine and see if agreement could be reached. In 1563, the Diet of Torda reaffirmed and extended this original edict of toleration, ordering “that each may embrace the religion he prefers without compulsion, and may be free to support preachers of his own faith, and in the use of the sacraments, and that neither party must do injury or violence to the other.”

This is basically what was reaffirmed in the Edict of Torda, issued by King Sigismund after he and his court converted to Unitarianism in 1568. It was authored by Francis David: “In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his (sic) 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…no one shall be reviled for his (sic) religion by anyone… and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment... For faith is the gift of God..."

Note that this gives congregations a right to choose the preacher that is most congenial to the congregation’s beliefs. This is foundational to the congregational system of church governance in the U.S. today, though the Unitarian Churches of Transylvania and Hungary today do not follow congregational polity. I have met several of their bishops. We have no bishops in the UU movement here.

There is much more to tell about this fascinating part of our history and yet we are out of time to tell it.

What do we make of this? To me, the point is that the great contribution of Francis David and King John Sigismund is not that they settled the doctrine of the Trinity once and for all, but that they laid down a framework for a world where religious questions can be debated without killing one another.

Susan Ritchie’s research suggests that the Ottoman policies might have been a contributing factor in this edict of toleration, and that is a fascinating possibility when we think of how Islam is portrayed today as an intolerant religion.

The Edict of Torda, of course, did not stop religious conflict; the Protestant Reformation led to the 100 years war in Europe with great suffering and bloodshed. Francis David himself was later convicted of heresy and died in a wretched dungeon, which I have visited.

But the edict pointed to a better way of dealing with doctrinal differences, and that way is still there, though often ignored. That way is found in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But it is perhaps best expressed in the words of Francis David: “we do not need to think alike to love alike.”


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