Can One Person Make A Difference? Religious Tolerance In Transylvania

Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown


Unison Reading: World Council of Churches’ 1948 Declaration on Religious Liberty

1. Every person has the right to determine his own faith and creed.
2. Every person has the right to express his religious beliefs in worship, teaching and practice and to proclaim the implications of his beliefs for relationships in a social or political community.
3. Every person has the right to associate with others and to organize with them for religious purposes.
4. Every religious organization formed or maintained . . . has the right to determine its policies and practices for the accomplishment of its chosen purposes.

In a recent sermon, I listed some of the important holy days and holidays that take place during December. Today happens to be another day that deserves our consideration and our celebration. On December 10, 1948, 48 of the 58 member states of the fledgling United Nations voted to confirm the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This marks the 52nd anniversary of that event and is celebrated as Human Rights Day worldwide.

Article 18 states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his [sic] religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his [sic] religion or belief, in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Several countries abstained from the vote, including Saudi Arabia and South Africa, but no state rejected the declaration outright.

Earlier in 1948, in August, the World Council of Churches held its first assembly in Amsterdam, where they adopted the Declaration on Religious Liberty that we read earlier. These articles have become the cornerstones of the international instruments defending religious freedom. Another key document is the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination based on Religion and Belief, which was adopted by the UN in 1981. For the first time in human history, religious freedom is at least in principle, under the protection of international instruments voted by the majority of the countries of the world. Most of these countries have adopted similar articles in their national constitutions.

Many had high hopes that these declarations would give power to international pressure to prevent the abuses of the past from being repeated. Enforcement of these declarations has been difficult. Less tolerant religious forces have made a comeback. In the last decades of the 20th century, revolution, wars and terrorism have all been promoted or justified within a context of religious struggle. Religion is again becoming a factor of division and persecution between people.

As Unitarian Universalists living in the United States in December, 2000, we can depend on the freedom to express our religious beliefs and practices. We are free today to celebrate human rights and religious tolerance because of the struggle of many others during the past millenium.

Many of those struggles began in the 16th century, when some church leaders took brave steps to form new religious groups in response to the abuses of power and intolerance of the Roman Catholic Church. This period is called the Reformation, which has the sound of liberty and justice as possibilities. However, during and after the Reformation there were continued instances of severe religious intolerance by the reforming groups. Robert McAfee Brown writes: “Calvinists and Lutherans were not notable champions of religious liberty for others. Only the “left wing” of the Reformation, insisted on religious liberty due to their being in the minority. A principle when compounded with a survival impulse is a powerful principle indeed.”

I believe this intolerance continued as a result of the mind set of the people of the middle ages, which did not change until later political changes brought new ways of thinking and a different concept of the state. In many ways, the people of the middle ages were much like us and understood concepts of representation, property rights, consent and government under law. During the twelfth century, the old Roman law was recovered and canon law had been codified. What held society together was “the bond of a common religion.”

This bond became for medieval people what the state is for us today. Certainly we can understand why a traitor to the state must be dealt with and how important it is for a person to have a state to call their own. To be a person without a country is certainly a terrible fate. The root cause of medieval hatred of heresy was that “heretics were seen, not only as traitors to the church, but as traitors to God and therefore the state. . . .” They had set themselves on a path that could lead only to eternal damnation and, unless they were restrained, they would lure countless others to the same terrible fate.”

With this in mind we understand how dangerous it was to question the religious hierarchy and the significance of the theologians who found ways to begin what has developed into Unitarian Universalism. During this period an Italian physician, Dr. Giorgio Biandrata was in Poland at the same time that the widowed Queen Isabella of the newly formed Transylvanian state was in exile there and under her brother’s protection. The King of Transylvania died at the time of the birth of his only son. While he made arrangements for his son’s protection until he came of age, political maneuvers over the control of Transylvania led to Prince John and the Queen’s exile. Thanks to alliances between the royal family and the Ottoman Turks, Queen Isabella and young prince John were eventually able to return to Transylvania.

Biandrata is reported to have escorted Isabella back to a triumphant entry. Isabella apparently was aware of his religious views. In 1556, the diet or government, met to discuss the possibility of returning to Catholicism as the only faith in Transylvania. Lutherans and Calvinists rejected this idea, and sent a supplication to Isabella, a Catholic, asking for freedom of worship for all three groups. One of her first acts in June 1557 was to issue a decree which provided that: “every one might hold the faith of his choice, together with the new rites or the former ones, without offence to any . . . and that the adherents of the new religion should do nothing to injure those of the old.” Isabella died in 1559.

Whether Biandrata returned to Poland and then came back to Transylvania when young King became ill is unclear. But what IS clear is that in addition to ministering to the health of King John Sigismund, Biandrata managed to convince him to make Frances Dávid the leader of the anti-Trinitarian Movement. In 1566, Dávid preached his first Unitarian Sermon. Calvinists proclaimed Dávid a heretic.

That same year, King John Sigismund called a Synod for the purpose of discussing the doctrine of the Trinity and related issues. Giorgio Biandrata was charged with establishing the ground rules. He proposed that only the language of scripture would be appropriate for the discussion, not the language of doctrine or dogma or philosophy. This put his opponents at an immediate and extreme disadvantage, since the doctrine of the Trinity had emerged only after 325 CE-after the New Testament had been written-and there is virtually no discussion of it within the Bible itself. The King’s confidence in his physician and his court preacher continued to grow. He provided them with a printing press with which to reach a wider audience. Dávid and Biandrata published a book, The False and True Knowledge of God. Calvinists in Hungary called for a debate, which the two refused to attend. They feared that when in Hungary, they would be arrested and imprisoned as heretics. From the press came a number of books that held the doctrine of the Trinity up to ridicule, and advanced what Biandrata and Dávid believed to be a purer Christianity. In 1568 Biandrata and Dávid convinced the king to issue the broadest toleration edict in Europe at the time at the Diet of Torda. During this year Dávid coined a new name for his group: Unitarians, or believers in the concept “God is One.”

While Dávid moved on from “God is One” to taking a radical position against praying to Jesus, Biandrata cautiously avoided this extreme position. He tried to convince Dávid to temper his public comments in
order to protect the newly gained religious liberty in Transylvania. Biandrata was a seasoned traveler and we might say “operator” and he was aware of how far the system could be pushed. Biandrata knew of the martyrdom of Michael Servetus, who was anti-trinitarian. He knew Servetus’ writings, which were on the best seller lists in Europe. Servetus had been questioned by the Inquisition and established a new identity for several years, thus escaping imprisonment.

Biandrata also raised the interest of the Inquisition in Italy. After joining with the Calvinists briefly and again raising problems there, he found refuge in Poland. He was a part of the development of the Minor Church, also known as the Polish Brethren. In the meantime, in 1553, Servetus had been burned at the stake with his best selling book tied to his thigh. Biandrata understood the fragility of the religious freedoms enjoyed in Transylvania.

After the death of King John in 1571, Biandrata allied himself with the leaders who ruled. He survived the fate of Frances Dávid by leading the prosecution against his friend, while trying to keep the remaining benefits of religious tolerance in place. Dávid was sentenced to life imprisonment in a dungeon cell. Biandrata was forced to recant some of his earlier views in order to survive the oppression of Unitarianism that took place in the years that followed. After the death of Prince Stephen Báthory, a new prince, Sigismund Báthory, was installed. In 1594, he invited the members of the diet to meet with him. Thirteen of the group were arrested, and five of the Unitarians were taken to the marketplace, and beheaded; four others were privately strangled, and the rest banished from the country. It was to be the beginning of nearly two centuries of almost uninterrupted persecution of the Transylvanian Unitarians after only about 40 years of relative religious liberty That oppression ended only a few years ago.

While Unitarian Universalist history books do mention Dr. Giorgio Biandrata, they fail to give him credit for what I believe was his importance in the establishment of religious tolerance at a time when it existed in a weaker form only in Poland. The Encyclopedia Britannica lists him as a “physician who became the leading organizer and supporter of Unitarianism in Transylvania.” It strikes me as curious that an Italian physician, who was raised as a Catholic, had such an influence on the origin of our faith. It demonstrates once again the power of one person to use his or her gifts in the interests of something greater. Unitarianism survives in Transylvania and we here in the United States are tied to these ancient theologians as we today celebrate religious liberty and human rights.

Religious liberty does not exist without struggle and continuing vigilance. Defending religious freedom in the United States is important and useful not only for those who are living here, but because it has an influence on the whole world. What kind of difference can we make for those who will follow us?

Professor Abdelfattah Amor, one of the United Nations special rapporteurs on religious intolerance reported in October that religious extremism is an “ever-growing scourge” epitomized by Afghanistan, whose Taliban rulers have “taken an entire society hostage.” He spoke of the situation of women in Afghanistan, “who are relegated to a pariah status and therefore afflicted by social, economic and cultural exclusion.” I have read reports that these women are resorting to suicide to escape their plight. Professor Amor, a Tunisian appointed in 1993, said extremism was also manifested with varying intensities in Egypt, Georgia, India, Indonesia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka through non-state entities. Religious intolerance, extremism and abuses continue to cause suffering in many parts of the world.

Can we either individually or collectively influence opinion against countries where basic human rights and rights to religious liberty particularly are being denied? Can we at least make our voices heard?

World War II Holocaust survivor and writer, Elie Wiesel said the following when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1986: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must at that moment become the center of the universe.”