European Roots: Past (Rev. Roy Reynolds)
I begin with a dilemma we all face: financial appeals for our
compassion. A sample from our family mail includes: Recording for the
Blind & Dyslexic, Food for the Hungry, Alzheimer’s
Association, the American Red Cross, the International Rescue
Committee, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and the
American Cancer Society. We simply cannot afford to support all of
those causes. The appeals usually end up in the recycle bag. I suspect
it’s the same with you. What’s most interesting is what we
choose not to toss into that bag.
It is my guess that the appeals we hold out and respond to are the
ones we feel somehow connected with. We’re unlikely to support
humanitarian efforts that don’t tug at our own hearts.
My message this morning tells a story of the origins of Unitarianism.
I begin like this because, if we have not traveled to the places where
the roots of our faith first grabbed soil, if we have not become
acquainted with individual European Unitarians, this whole matter
might seem distant to us. It may be interesting, but some of you may
wonder “What does this have to do with us? I’ve found a
friendly congregation here that fits my values. That’s what I was
seeking. What relevance to me is the larger UU movement? What
connection do I have with European Unitarians?”
Perfectly reasonable questions. Sometimes I feel the same about my
mother’s interest in genealogy. What do those ancestors have to do
with me other than as carriers of the same genes? Then she tells me
“Your great grandfather so and so was a minister, and so was his
father.” And my dad chimes in with stories of ancestors that
reveal a thread among the men on his side of the family. They were all
meticulous, perfectionistic and persevering. Suddenly I find myself
connected. There is something about those people that lives in me.
(Not always comfortably, I might add.)
It is much the same when we look at UU ancestry. What’s the
connection? Well, consider this: We often describe Unitarian
Universalism as a liberal religion whose corner stones are religious
freedom, the use of reason as integral to one’s religious
philosophy, and tolerance of other’s beliefs. A real draw for
thinking people. Sounds very much like principles championed by the
founders of these United States, people like Thomas Jefferson and John
Adams. Both were Unitarians. We can easily trace our religious
ancestry to Jefferson and Adams back through ministers Theodore
Parker, Emerson, William Ellery Channing, and Joseph Priestly (who,
incidentally, was friends with those early statesmen).
This liberal faith of free-thinking, justice-seeking people, was over
two hundred years old when this country was founded. When you come
here and feel supported, not scorned, for questioning scriptures and
challenging religious orthodoxy, you are receiving nutrients from
roots that were planted over 430 years ago. Those roots now sustain a
tree with many branches. Its broad canopy embraces quite diverse
religious philosophies ? scientific humanism, naturalistic theism, UU
Christianity, earth-centered spirituality, and mystical and poetic
insights. Those who planted and watered the roots would not recognize
their faith in the way we conduct our services. Theirs was much more
like 19th century Unitarianism in America: The Lord’s Prayer
spoken every Sunday, periodic communion services, the reading of
Biblical scriptures each Sunday, Jesus as the exemplar. But our
European forebears developed a faith that radically differed from
Catholicism or the Protestant theologies of Martin Luther and John
Calvin. Theirs was a Unitarian Christianity. God was not three persons
in one, not four, not five. He was one. Jesus Christ was not God. He
was a man who taught others how to love God and live the good life.
The tree of our liberal faith took root in the beautiful region of
Transylvania in what is now Romania. Yes, Transylvania is known for
something other than Dracula! Surrounded by Alps to the south and the
Carpathian Mountains to the east and north, this region became a kind
of forgotten land to Europeans of the 16th century. It was buffered
both from Western Europe and the East. At the outbreak of the
Reformation, the population of Transylvania was mostly Catholic. Three
major ethnic groups co-existed without much intermingling: the
Szeklers, who were Hungarian; the Magyars, descendants of Russian
invaders, also Hungarian-speaking; and the Saxons, descendants of
German immigrants. When the Lutheran missionaries arrived the region
largely converted to Protestantism; Saxons becoming Lutheran, the
Magyars and Szeklers converting to Calvinism, then later the Szeklers
The soil was ready for the Protestant Reformation, particularly
because the Hungarian people were self-reliant, inured to hardship,
and devoted to freedom. In the 1550s the king of Transylvania was an
intelligent, but frail and sensitive young man named John Sigismund.
His doctor, and principal advisor, Biandrata, was an antitrinitarian.
For several years, debates had been breaking out between the Lutherans
and Calvinists regarding the Lord’s Supper. The Lutherans held
that Christ was actually present in the bread and wine. The
Calvinists believed the bread and wine were symbols of Christ’s
spirit. King Sigismund grew concerned that the quarrels were becoming
violent, disturbing the peace of the state.
Dr. Biandrata advised the king to bring in the skills of the brilliant
preacher and debater Francis David to help settle the matter. King
John appointed David his court preacher. David became spokesman for
the Unitarian party in national debates called by the king to clarify
religious issues of the time. No one was more capable. David had been
educated as a Catholic priest, and had become successively a Lutheran,
then a Calvinist, then a Unitarian, and was a leader in each instance.
He was a towering intellect and an incomparable public speaker. One of
his contemporaries said of him, “He seemed to have the Old and
New Testaments at his tongue’s end.” In my research, one
writer included David’s name beside that of William Shakespeare,
in naming a handful of creative geniuses of that era.
Francis David was an advocate of freedom of belief with each
individual accountable only to God. The time and situation were ripe
for his talents. King John set up synods where issues of faith could
be openly debated. There were three major debates. The second debate
immediately followed a decree of toleration. King John proclaimed,
That preachers shall be allowed to preach the Gospel everywhere,
each according to his own understanding of it? No one shall be made
to suffer on account of his religion, since faith is the gift of
Unitarian Historian Earl Morse Wilbur claims this as the “Magna
Carta of religion in Transylvania.” He says
“?it deserves to be remembered as a golden date in
Unitarian history, for it saved the Unitarian faith from being
crushed out there as it was in other lands.”
(Our Unitarian Heritage, 1925)
The year was 1568.
Unitarianism became a popular faith among the Hungarian Transylvanians
and Francis David was its champion. The rallying cry was “Egy az
Isten” (“God is One”). By 1600 there were more than 525
Unitarian churches in the land.
I wish I could say this watershed moment sustained religious freedom
for the people, but I cannot. It was a short-lived victory. King John
died at the age of thirty. His edict of toleration was soon rescinded
by a successor. David was jailed for introducing innovation into
religious faith. He died in jail. Unitarian ministers were
intentionally mistreated. Still, Unitarianism lived on. A
strong-willed people kept it alive over the decades and centuries, and
the faith emigrated into Western Europe, then to America.
In our time there were attempts to totally stamp out Unitarianism in
Romania. The Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was set to bulldoze
whole villages to rid the country of this freethinking faith. The
people’s revolt of 1989 stopped that and all other atrocities of
Ceausescu. The Communist government was overturned, Ceausescu and his
wife were summarily executed. The country was reorganized as a
If you still ask, “How does this touch my life? How does it
inform my actions?” let me remind you of the hymn “Spirit of
Life.” The last words are “Roots hold me close; wings set me
free; Spirit of Life come to me ?” We are rooted in the soil of
Transylvania. The faith they vigilantly held to runs in our veins.
Each of us is branch from that tree. They have given us a liberal
faith. What can we give them?
The Transylvanian people think of the American Unitarians as a source
of hope. This new hope started with the Partner Church Program in
1990, seeking to match every Unitarian church in Transylvania with a
UU church over here. After ten years, American UUs have visited the
villages and cities of Transylvania, building emotional ties.
Ministers from there have visited the states. Two years ago Mozes
Kedei, from one of the two Unitarian churches in Szeklyudvarhely,
delivered a message from this pulpit. That inspired our participation.
The Reverend Attila Csongvay, from another church, expressed his
feelings poignantly when he first visited his partner church in
Virginia. Never before had he flown. He had lived all his life in such
dark times that it often seemed impossible to find the sun. On the
flight over he saw what to him was a miracle. He noticed that
“above the clouds the sun is always shining.” The link with
his partner church became, as he put it, “? a bridge over which
sunlight could make its way to our valley where our dark times have
been very deep.”
Unitarian seminary students from Kolosvar have attended UU seminaries
in the U.S. I have met one who attended Starr King School. I have also
met the bishop of Transylvanian Unitarianism, the Reverend Dr. Arpad
Szabo. American UUs are building friendships with people who have
protected the roots of our religion.
The feeling of connection is growing among us. This last story I will
tell comes from a visit to Transylvania by one of our ministers, Gary
Smith. It was a long weekend visit and his hosts wanted to squeeze in
several stops in nearby villages. The means of transportation was a
well-worn Volkswagen Bus. Gary said that any trip in that bus was
itself a challenge, because the van’s seat was “the thickness
of a cracker, the shocks were a distant memory, and the brakes made a
terrible sound of metal rubbing against metal.” (“Nine
Days in September,” a sermon, October 16, 1994)
They had already made three stops as darkness was falling. The host
minister said they must make just one more. As Gary tells it,
?against the fading light we could see the steeple of the
Unitarian church in this village. By the time we reached the
village itself, it was totally dark, and what lights there were
shone only through very tightly shuttered windows. We pulled up to
the church’s parsonage, the driver got out, came around in the
well-rehearsed routine we now knew so well, and slid open the side
door for us to disembark. This was the kind of darkness where you
could not see a hand in front of your face.
There in a moment of car sickness and exhaustion and frustration
and worn-out patience, there out of the darkness and an absolute
silence, came a moment which, for me, was the most remarkable of
the entire trip. Suddenly we heard the sound of a kazoo. There on a
three mile dead end road in northwest Romania in a place called
Transylvania at the end of a very long day when I wanted most to be
under some warm covers fast asleep came a moment which both humbled
and restored me. The music of the kazoo was playing a tune familiar
to me and to you, “Spirit of Life, Come Unto Me,” Carolyn
McDade’s beautiful song.
[Gary said] I have to tell you it was one of the most remarkable
moments of my life.
As the light spilled out of a kitchen door [it highlighted] the
sweet face of [a] seven or eight year old girl, the minister’s
daughter, who had greeted us with the song taught to her by
American friends just three months earlier.
The Bedford congregation had brought with them kazoos for every
child in that Unitarian village, and in an effort to transcend the
difficulty of a Hungarian-English language barrier, had used music
as a means of communication? [That] sweet girl had remembered the
tune for three months. “Blow in the wind, rise in the sea?
Roots hold me close; wings set me free; Spirit of Life, come to me,
come to me.”
[Sometimes] we recognize in a flash that the ground we are
standing on is holy ground. Gary Smith said, I was on holy ground
in that village that Saturday.
May we recognize that the ground we stand on is a faith nurtured in
the soil of Eastern Europe. Our roots reside there.
May we have the freshness of vision to see that our faith can give us
wings to fly above the clouds.