“Our Story, Part 2: European Roots”

Kevin M. Carson

A sermon given at the First Universalist Parish in Chester, Vermont, October 28, 2018

To appreciate our inclusive and diverse religious tradition, I believe it is important to understand our history.  Over three Sundays, we will explore the fascinating story of our Unitarian Universalist faith. In part two, we will examine the influence of religious movements in Europe during the turbulent centuries after the Reformation.

If you were here two weeks ago, for part one of this three-sermon series on the history of our faith, we covered a substantial timeline of religion.  I started with the first evidence of religion among our human ancestors some 225,000 years ago, and continued through the birth of Judaism and Christianity, and the theological origins of the doctrines of unitarianism and universalism in the early centuries of Christianity. I then briefly talked about the Middle Ages and ended on the cusp of the Protestant Reformation.  Today, I am covering only a few centuries, and I am focusing on Europe in particular, and as you will see, these were some extremely turbulent times.  In the third sermon, which specifically looks at our history in America, I will revisit some of this same time period from the American perspective, because there are a number of important connections between Europe and America during this period that deserve more attention.

There were three main takeaways I wanted you to get from my first sermon.  First, I wanted to emphasize that the human impulse to spirituality and religion is ancient and fundamental to what it means to be human. We have been spiritual creatures for a very, very long time.  My second takeaway is that there have been many ideas and influences that contributed to the story of our faith, and these ideas have evolved and diversified for centuries, often in very contentious times.  The Unitarian Universalist Association may have been established in 1961, but the roots of our faith are much deeper.  My third takeaway is that I wanted to make sure everyone is familiar with the basic meaning, and central issue, of the two theological doctrines in our denomination’s name: Unitarianism and Universalism.  

For Unitarians, the central issue was the status of Jesus.  Was Jesus God, or a divine or special being but not God, or a mortal like the rest of us?  In theological language, this is a question of Christology.  A “high” Christology sees Jesus as divine, and a “low” Christology sees Jesus as mortal. By denying the trinitarian idea that God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit coexisted as part of a divine Trinity, those who held a lower Christology became known as “Unitarians,” or sometimes “Arians,” because of the unitarian theology of Arius of Alexandria.  And please note that is Arians with an “i,” and it has nothing to do with the Aryans with a “y” that are associated with race, white supremacy, and even Nazism.  It is an unfortunate coincidence that they sound alike.  There are so-called Aryan Nation churches with a “y” out there, but they have absolutely nothing in common with our liberal faith.

For Universalists, the central issue was who would be saved and reconciled to God in the afterlife.  Some Universalists believed everyone and everything in Creation would be saved without question because “God Is Love.”  Others believed everyone would be saved eventually, but you had to be punished for a time to pay for your sins in life.  That said, next time, I will talk about how Universalism evolved from its focus on salvation toward the idea of a universality of religious thinking, and how that opened the door for greater inclusion and the pluralism we see in our faith today.

Also as I pointed out last time, there have been several nuanced variations of these two Christian doctrines over the centuries.  I once heard someone quip that Unitarian Universalist theology boils down to, “There is only one God, and all dogs go to heaven.”  It is a little more complicated, I think, and as we explore the complex developments in Europe during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, or so-called “Age of Reason,” please keep in mind the principle issue of each theology.  

Most history books mark the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in the year 1517, when Martin Luther published his “Ninety-five Theses,” which was critical of the Roman Catholic Church, most notably criticizing the practice of selling “indulgences,” which were official documents the Church sold that promised reduced punishment in purgatory for earthly sins.  It was certainly a “big” event given everything that followed, and it is true that most of the big events associated with the Reformation did take place in the sixteenth century, but it is important to acknowledge that the issues that ignited the Reformation developed over centuries as the Church gained enormous power and influence across Europe.  I think it is also important to acknowledge the contribution of the printing press, invented in 1450, which allowed new translations of the Bible and other important books to be mass distributed across Europe.  Perhaps even more importantly, it allowed pamphlets promoting all kinds of ideas to quickly flood the cities of Europe and spread new thinking and foster public debate.  News from distant countries spread like never before, and the Church was often at the center of controversy.

Like any large political system, corruption in the Church was almost inevitable, and when you mix this with religious fervor, it was bound to create trouble.  The dream of the Reformation was, and always has been, to return the Church to the true teachings of Jesus, but interpreting those teachings to everyone’s satisfaction has remained problematic to say the least.  As early as the 1300’s, early reformers like John Wycliffe in England, and Jan Hus in what is now the Czech Republic, were arguing against papal authority as having no basis in scripture, and for translating the Bible into the language of the people.  Both would be branded as heretics and executed, but their ideas lived on.  You also had Humanist philosophers like Erasmus, who lived between 1466 and 1536, exploring ideas about the human condition outside the context of the Church.  Erasmus was so well respected he became known as the “Prince of the Humanists,” and though he was critical of the Church, he kept some distance from the more serious reformers like Luther, so he never drew as much ire from authorities.  His writings had a major intellectual impact across Europe, influencing the thinking of some of the less radical reformers such as King Henry VIII, and even some proponents of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.  

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the stage was set for major upheaval, and the story of Miguel Serveto Conesa, better known by his Latinized name Michael Servetus, illustrates the issues on many levels.  He is important to our story, because he was also one of the earliest true Unitarians in this period, and both his writings and his martyrdom would be influential in spreading Unitarian thinking.  Born in Spain in 1509, Servetus was a classic example of the “Renaissance Man.”  He was a polymath extraordinaire who, from a young age, studied law, science, and medicine in addition to theology, and in those times, any one of those pursuits could easily end with you tied to a burning stake. He was known for his effective medical practice which often meant authorities were willing to ignore some of the more incendiary writings and allow him to remain among them.  He is noteworthy in the history of medicine for discovering the circulation of blood through the pulmonary system.

In 1531, at the age of 22, Servetus published his most famous and controversial work, On the Errors of the Trinity, which was a scholarly critique of the doctrine of the Trinity from the perspective of scripture, and from an analysis of the writings of the Early Church Fathers.  Growing up in Spain in the decades after so many Jews and Muslims were exiled, or forced to convert, with the doctrine of the Trinity being so central, Servetus found it difficult to comprehend how something without scriptural basis could cause such conflict. It only took a year after the publication of his book for the Inquisition to order his arrest on the charge of heresy, and for Protestant reformers to condemn him as well.  Servetus decided to go underground and moved around Europe for the next several years, adopting the name Michel de Villeneuve, an homage to his hometown of Villanueva in Spain. 

But the temptation to theological debate was simply too great.  In 1546 he published a new book titled, The Restoration of Christianity, which maintained a relatively high Christology, but expanded on his Unitarianism – and some would argue a form of pantheism, meaning God is everywhere in all things.  In 1553, Servetus was living in Lyon, pretending to be the good Catholic physician Michel de Villeneuve, when he was outed with the assistance of the letter from Guillaume Trie I read from this morning.  He was jailed by the Inquisition but managed to escape to Geneva, only to find himself the target of John Calvin’s condemnation for disagreeing with his own Protestant theology.  Despite pleas from notables across the European Protestant community, Servetus was condemned for heresy, and burned at the stake along with his books in Geneva on October 27, 1553.  Incidentally, the only surviving copy of Servetus’s The Restoration of Christianity was found in Calvin’s personal library, so we can thank him for preserving this Unitarian work for future generations.

The execution of Michael Servetus set off a wave of criticism, and even some riots, within Protestant circles in Europe, with calls for more tolerance and understanding among the emerging sects.  Some staunchly supported Calvin’s decision but many others firmly rejected it, and executions for heresy began to decline over the next century.  By the 1700’s tolerance laws had mostly ended the practice, but the last known execution for heresy was a Spanish schoolmaster who was convicted by the Inquisition in 1826.

The other legacy of Servetus was through the spread of his ideas, as his books were reprinted and disseminated across Europe.  They became popular among Anabaptist groups, and others in the so-called “Radical Reformation,” who not only decried the corruption of the Roman Church but equally rejected the magisterial corruption of Lutheranism and the heavy-handed authority of Calvin.  As early as 1536, radical reformers in Northern Italy were reading Servetus, including two more important figures in our story, Giorgio Biandrata and Lelio Sozzini, better known by his Latinized name Laelius Socinus.

As one Protestant leader wrote, the “Servetian plague” was spreading, and in a council attended by roughly 1,000 radical reformers in Venice, they produced a 10-point doctrine that included anti-trinitarian statements like, “Christ is not God but man, born of Joseph and Mary, but filled with all the powers of God.”  When the situation became more dangerous in Italy, both Biandrata and Socinus left, with Biandrata ending up in Transylvania, and Socinus ending up in Poland.  If there were time, I would love to tell you about the fascinating journeys of each man, but for today, I must simply mention them as part of our continuing game of connect the dots. 

The Reformed Church in Poland began around the year 1550, and from the start, there were debates about the doctrine of the trinity, reflecting the influence of the writings of Jan Hus.  In 1558, both Biandrata and Socinus arrived in Poland and started teaching, and by 1565, trinitarian Calvinists split off from other members of the Reformed Church, marking the beginning of an organized Unitarian movement.  They did not call themselves Unitarians and were called “Arians” by Catholic opponents. They simply wanted to be called Christians.  Later, they became known as the “Polish Brethren” or “Socinians,” especially under the leadership of Laelius Socinus’s nephew Faustus Socinus.  For roughly the next 100 years, the fortunes of the Polish Socinians ebbed and flowed with the political and religious conflicts of the era.  Lutherans and Catholics tried to annihilate them on occasion, and wars with Sweden and Russia combined with internal politics to make life very hard at times.  

Most of them settled in the town of Rakow, about seventy miles north of Krakow, and it is here than Faustus Socinus and his followers developed the “Racovian Catechism,” a systematic book of instruction in the doctrines of their Unitarian faith. The first edition of the Racovian Catechism was published in 1605, a year after Socinus’s death, and it became extremely popular in Europe, being translated into several languages.  It found a receptive audience in almost every country, and it quickly made it onto the banned books lists as word spread.  King James of England found it to be “Satanic,” and by April 2, 1652, the English Parliament voted to seize and burn all copies in circulation.  

It’s hard to keep a good book down though, and for the record, it is currently available on Amazon in hardcover, paperback, and even a free Kindle edition.

Things did not end well for the Polish Brethren unfortunately, as you might have guessed, since we don’t talk about the Polish Unitarian Church today. By the 1650’s, the Catholic Church in Poland began a severe crackdown on Protestants, and Unitarians in particular, martyring many, and forcing the rest to convert or face banishment.  A few hundred Polish Unitarians decided to flee to Transylvania where there was an established Unitarian Church, arriving in the city of Cluj in 1661, where they were warmly received.

It is in Transylvania, a region of modern Romania roughly two-thirds the size of Maine, that our stories converge.   This ancient region known as Dacia to the Romans has the geographic misfortune to be a frequent host to military clashes and conquering armies from the Romans and the Huns, to the Turks, Magyars, Germans, Swedes, Poles, and Russians.  It became part of Communist Romania after World War II, and its mostly ethnic Hungarian population has been persecuted by just about everyone who came to power.  By the 1520’s there were Reformed Lutheran churches in the region, reflecting a long history of disdain for the Roman Catholic Church.  As the crossroads of so many cultures and ethnicities, authorities had a generally more tolerant approach to diversity and dissent, so it is not surprising that the ideas of Servetus and other more radical reformers would find purchase there.

In a complicated period of Ottoman influence in Hungary and the surrounding regions, John Sigismund Zápolya became King John II of Transylvania, bringing with him his physician Giorgio Biandrata, and appointing Biandrata’s young friend Ferenc Dávid, also known as Francis David, as the court preacher.  Thanks to their anti-trinitarian theology, King John II converted first from Catholicism to Lutheranism, then to Calvinism, and then to Unitarianism.  He remains the only Unitarian king in history. Francis David himself followed a similar series of conversions, starting his ministry as a Catholic priest, before becoming a Lutheran, then a Calvinist bishop, and finally a Unitarian, after reading the works of Servetus and meeting Biandrata.  Francis David became a popular preacher in Transylvania, and as Unitarianism spread, there was inevitable conflict with Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists, that sometimes ended in violence, not unlike the turmoil in fourth-century Alexandria.  At David’s urging, the king convened the Diet in the city of Torda in 1568 to pass an edict of religious tolerance and put an end to the unrest.  The Edict of Torda was one of the earliest acts of religious tolerance in Europe, though it was limited to granting tolerance only among the prevalent forms of Christianity in the kingdom.  It didn’t last long though, because things quickly unraveled with the death of the king in 1571.  He was succeeded by a Roman Catholic who reinstituted a period of Protestant persecutions.  Francis David was arrested and imprisoned, and despite the attempted intervention of Faustus Socinus, he died in prison in 1579.  But, as many of you know, despite a number of serious challenges over the last 450 years, there is still a Unitarian Church in Transylvania which today has 141 places of worship and roughly 100,000 members, and many American UU churches have established partner church relationships.  

By the end of the sixteenth century, you had a small but determined Unitarian church in Transylvania and a few pockets of pro-Unitarian groups spread elsewhere across Eastern Europe.  The 1600’s would continue to see bloody religious conflicts across Europe, and the English Civil War would end with mass emigrations of Puritans to America. By the end of the eighteenth century, thanks in part to the famous Racovian Catechism, Unitarianism would gain a small foothold in England which continues to this day.  Some of these ideas would come to America with the English Unitarian Joseph Priestly, who is best known as the discoverer of oxygen.  

Today, I have focused on the Unitarian side of our history in Europe, since our time is limited, and that was where most of the action was, but Universalism also saw a resurgence during the Renaissance and Reformation.  This was aided by the theology of the Dutch reformer Arminius, who lived between 1560 and 1609.  “Arminianism,” as it became known, preached a doctrine that salvation was available to all because of God’s grace, as opposed to the Calvinist idea of predestination – that only the “elect” who were chosen by God would be saved.   And, when you take seriously the idea that “God is love,” it is easy to start doubting the idea that a loving God can condemn anyone for eternity no matter what mistakes they make in life.  

By the 1700’s many English Anglicans, turned Methodists, were influenced by Arminianism and were becoming convinced Universalists.  One of those was the Rev. James Relly, who was a popular preacher during the Great Awakening in the middle of the eighteenth century.  Relly’s Universalist followers were known as “Rellyeans” or “Rellyites,” and according to tradition, one day the young John Murray, then zealously anti-Rellyite, visited a Rellyean disciple who had left his congregation to convince her of her error. Much to his dismay, the woman confronted him with the logic of Universalism, and he decided to see what Relly was all about.  Sometime in the 1760s, on a Sunday when his own minister was away, Murray and his wife attended a service to hear Relly, and Murray described the service in his autobiography years later as a turning point in his theology.  Next time I will talk about Murray’s decision to come to America.

I hope this small taste of the European side of our story was helpful.  There are so many other strands in the tapestry of our faith that I would love to talk about, but the ones I highlighted should give you an idea about how complex and turbulent the Reformation was, and how our story fits into the larger narrative.  These were violent and bloody times, and we owe a great debt to the many brave souls who advanced our liberal tradition at great peril, often sacrificing their lives.  As we witnessed yesterday, on the very anniversary of Michael Servetus’s execution in Geneva, hatred of others on the basis of religion has been a source of violence and evil throughout human history, and it is still with us.  I pray that our inclusive and loving faith can help heal the world, at least in some small way.  Next week, we will conclude with the story of how we became an American faith.


Opening Words from Against the Libel by Calvin       Sebastian Castellio (1540)  

“The Scriptures are full of enigmas and inscrutable questions which have been in dispute for over a thousand years without agreement, nor can they be resolved without love, which appeases all controversies.  Yet on account of these enigmas the earth is filled with innocent blood ... On controversial points we would do better to defer judgment, even as God, who knows us to be guilty, yet postpones judgment and waits for us to amend our lives.  To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine.  It is simply to kill a man.”

Reading from a letter from Guillaume Trie in Geneva to his Catholic cousin in Lyons,

 February 26, 1553

“Although we allow greater liberty in religion and doctrine, we do not suffer the name of God to be blasphemed ... I can give you an example which is greatly to your confusion ... You suffer a heretic, who well deserves to be burned wherever he may be ... Here is one who will call Jesus Christ an idol, who will destroy all the fundamentals of the faith, who will amass all the phantasies of the ancient heretics, who will even condemn infant baptism, calling it an invention of the devil.  And this man is in good repute among you, and is suffered as if he were not wrong.  Where is the zeal you pretend?  Where is the police of this fine hierarchy of which you so boast?  The man of whom I speak has been condemned by all the churches you reprove, yet you suffer him and even let him print his books which are so full of blasphemies that I need say no more.  Here is a Portuguese Spaniard, named Michael Servetus.  That is his real name, but he goes under the name of Villeneuve and practices medicine.  Now he is at Vienne where his book has been printed by a certain Balthazar Arnoulette, and lest you think I am talking without warrant I send you the first folio.”

Reading Edict of Torda, from the Diet and King John Sigismund, 1568


His majesty, our Lord, in what manner he - together with his realm - legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the same matter now, in this Diet, reaffirms that 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 hearings is by the word of God.

Mourner’s Kaddish in English Translation

Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world
which He has created according to His will.

May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days,
and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
and say, Amen.

May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

He who creates peace in His celestial heights,
may He create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen.