Our Story of Religious Freedom: Healing Through History by Taryn Strauss
One of my life’s mentors, the theater/educator/activist Agusto Boal, taught me that while the theatre is a place: a building, a construction designed to house shows and presentations, the word theatre is also the setting for major events, comic or tragic which we are obliged to observe at a distance, as paralyzed spectators:
the theatre of crime, the theatre of war, the theatre of our passions playing out. Theatre can reference public social moments and monumental occasions: the launching of a ship, the coronation of a monarch.
Theatre can be repetitive acts of our everyday lives. We perform the play of our waking up routine, the scene of going to work, the epic of family dinner. All the world, you see, is a stage.
Lights up, on our scene.
The day: January 13, 1568
The place: A small province in Eastern Europe in the 16th century known then as Transylvania, in present-day Romania.
Though outside the mainstream of European culture, this was a geopolitical hot spot at the time, with the Muslim Ottoman Empire vying for influence with the Holy Roman Empire. This controversy, combined with periodic warfare and shifting religious factions also set the stage in the middle of the century for an unprecedented experiment in religious tolerance.
The cast of players:
Queen Isabella: Queen of Transylvania a widow, who gave birth to her son John two weeks after the King died. Intent on eradicating religious persecution after the Catholic Inquisition in the 1500s, rather than decreeing from the monarchy the religion of her people, she established the synod system, a series of public debates and forums on religious belief and interpretation.
King John Sigismund, her teenage son: Due to early influencers, he converted to Unitarianism and decreed the Edict of Torda, a founding document for religious freedom as we know it.
Francis Dávid: Dávid was a religious reformer who had rejected the idea of the Trinity, the central theological teaching in both the Catholic Church and Protestant reform movements of the time such as Lutheranism and Calvinism. Dávid believed that there was no evidence in the Bible of a Holy Trinity made up of the Father (God), the Son (Jesus) and the Holy Ghost. Instead, he believed that God was the only divine being, that Jesus was God’s human representation on earth, and that there was no Holy Ghost. This belief was known as Unitarianism and Dávid founded the Unitarian Church in Hungary.
Giorgio Biandrata: the court physician to Sigismund and most probably a member of the princely council that formally authored the Edict of Torda. Biandrata had been inspired by the Anti-Trinitarian thinking of the theological innovator Michael Servetus, before his arrival in Transylvania, and he brought this influence to the Transylvanian court along with the rich traditions of Italian humanism. And perhaps more than anyone else, Biandrata was interested in developing an institutionally stable and international Unitarian church.
Our play begins a few years earlier, in the mid 1560s:
Lights up on Queen Isabella, she is listening to her doctor, and advisor, the wise Giorgio Biandrata, go on and on about the brilliant physician and theologian Michael Servetus, who debated Calvin in an earlier synod on the doctrine of the Trinity and was put to death for heresy. Religiously, it was a time of great turmoil. Lutheran and Calvinist reformers were pushing out Catholics,
and Greek Orthodox expanded their presence and everyone was fighting for more souls. Amid this chaos, Isabella and her son found solace in this trusted advisor, Biandrata, an Italian physician who brought news of a newly emerging religious reform movement, one that rejected the doctrine of the trinity and declared that God is one. He called it Unitarian.
Two years later, the Queen died, leaving the throne to her 19-year-old son John Sigismund, who vowed to continue in her legacy of freedom of religious debate. Despite an earlier decree from Queen Isabella, disputes continued to flare up amongst contesting religious sects of Calvinists, Lutherans and Catholics.
John Sigismund turned to his close advisor, Biandrata, who was part of a network of humanist and liberal religious thinkers ranging from Italy to Poland. Perhaps is most important contact was with a spiritually restless, one-time Catholic priest name Dávid Ferenc, or Francis Dávid. Dávid was a brilliant preacher, a passionate scholar who had been converted to Lutheranism and then Calvinism, serving as a bishop for both faiths. Eventually, he shifted to a Unitarian perspective, and it was then that Biandrata arranged for him to be appointed court preacher under Sigismund.
Here are some examples of Dávid’s religious ideas:
“Salvation must be accomplished on this Earth.”
The Most Important Spiritual Function is Conscience, the source of all spiritual joy and happiness.”
Does that feel familiar, I wonder?
Dávid’s passion and Biandrata’s wisdom led Sisigmund to call the Diet of Torda, where he decreed the Edict you heard Don read earlier. A year later Sigismund declared himself a Unitarian, making him the first-and only-Unitarian King. The first few years after the decree was a prosperous time in Transylvania. The decree did not allow for any old range of beliefs, instead it granted government protection to practice Catholicism, Lutheran, Calvinist, Unitarian, as well as Orthodox Christian, Jewish, and Muslim ideologies freely without fear of violence.
What’s more, it gave birth to a new religious movement first under Francis Dávid’s leadership then as an independent network of churches.
Sadly, two years after Sigismund’s conversion he died in an accident. His successor was Catholic who had no interest in Dávid’s experimental theology.
The denouement of our play is somewhat mysterious.
In 1578 Biandrata became alarmed at innovations being promoted by Dávid, especially non-adorantism (not worshiping Christ or praying to him) and anti-baptism. He worried that these positions would result in repressive legal action being taken against Unitarians by the state. He advised Dávid to abandon these innovations, or at least, to remain silent on the issue.
At his own expense, he brought Faustus Socinus, the leading Polish anti-trinitarian, to debate doctrine with Dávid. When, after lengthy discussions, the two failed to come to an agreement, the matter was referred to the Polish Brethren for a judgment.
Biandrata envisioned an international Unitarian Reformed church, embracing the Polish Brethren, the Transylvanian Unitarians, and churches in Moldavia and Lithuania as well.
When Dávid began introducing changes in advance of the Polish decision, Biandrata became angered and gave up on Dávid as incorrigible.
At Biandrata’s instigation, a Diet was convened a few years later to try Dávid for religious innovation. As the prince’s chief counsel, Biandrata led the prosecution, accusing Dávid of embracing Judaism through his refusal to invoke Christ.
Dávid argued that because he had held his views before the innovation law had been passed, no violation had occurred. When Dávid entered the courtroom to hear the decision he was embraced by Biandrata, an action widely referred to later as the “Judas kiss.”
Sentenced to life imprisonment, Dávid died a few months later in a mountain castle dungeon at Déva. For many Transylvanian and other Unitarians, Dávid quickly became, and remains, a martyr-hero.
Here lies Francis Dávid, the first incorrigible Unitarian!
Controversy arose almost at once over Biandrata’s motives.
Biandrata defended himself, saying that he was less concerned with Dávid’s doctrines than with the political consequences for the Unitarian church.
Biandrata quickly assumed control of the Transylvanian Unitarian movement. He convinced the majority of the ministers to adopt a confession of faith conceding that Christ was to be “worshiped and adored.”
Biandrata is no villain, however. His concern was for the future and health of Unitarianism.
He designed a new church discipline, restoring infant baptism and communion. Upon his recommendation, a conservative Unitarian was appointed as the new Unitarian superintendent. In the more repressive political climate in the years following Dávid’s death, the moderate stand adopted by the Unitarians upon the advice of Biandrata, helped to insure their survival.
The Unitarian movement grew rapidly under the new leadership, but resentment and anger soon forced Biandrata to withdraw from participation.
Although silent about religious affairs in later years, his allegiance to Unitarianism remained:
his substantial estate was left to his nephew Giorgio, on condition that he remain true to the Unitarian faith.
Lights Down, Curtain Closes.
It is now time to wish all of you, a very Happy Anniversary, congratulations! Or, Happy Birthday, perhaps, since many historians credit this moment with the beginning of the Unitarian Church! You are 450 years old, which in religion years, makes you about thirteen years old! A young adolescent.
That’s right, we are just beginning to get acne and our voices are beginning to crack and we are feeling a dual desire to be rebellious and get a tattoo and to be totally unique in our self-expression, and a competing desire to just be comfortably normal. Like, come on, we are the reasonable ones! We’re not edgy! But it’s also fun to be edgy!
I have led parenting workshops for many years now, as part of the Coming of Age experience, that happens at around age 13. I invite each family to write down together a list of new freedoms for their adolescent child, and corresponding responsibilities.
We Unitarians are just now coming of age.
Our edict of Torda:
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.
In a time when monarchs aligned themselves with religious sects and the state and the church colluded as common, normal practice to perpetuate each other, this was a radical declaration.
It wasn’t simply doctrinal freedom on the table, nor openness to interpretation they were proclaiming, but the foundation of the relationship between congregant and preacher.
The free pulpit, and the opportunity for the congregant to disagree without being declared a sinner, without fear of excommunication. This was monumental. No one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied.
Though what followed was politically murky and personally tragic for the players involved, the path towards congregational polity and freedom of the pulpit was charted here.
While this is all important and I am grateful for these innovators, my theology is always concerned with oppressed people in our time, and before our time.
And people living under oppression do not ask whether Jesus is one with the Father or divine or human, they ask whether Jesus is walking with them, whether they can call up God on that prayer telephone and tell God their troubles.
They ask if they can keep faith in a community after its failed them.
I am concerned if their souls would be satisfied.
And as a Unitarian, part of this history, you must understand that just as I am obliged to preach freely, you too have an obligation to ask, is your soul satisfied?
In this three act play of Religious Freedom and political maneuvering, we Unitarians of today owe a debt and a responsibility to this history.
It was Queen Isabella, truly, whose determination to end the violence in her region called for public, open debates, a forum for people to explore their theologies and face their ideological enemy and take them seriously. When we today, talk about religious freedom, this is what we mean.
The preacher is not the person who speaks for you. We believe that you can disagree with what comes out of the pulpit, and you will still belong here.
Now, our American First amendment freedom of speech is not an article of faith. We can be influenced by the constitution as a founding document of our government, but as people of faith, this is not our highest call. Our highest call is to stay in relationship.
We have the freedom of religious interpretation. None of us, not even the preacher, has the monopoly on truth. We are not the mouthpiece of God. Your disagreement, your doubt does not make you a sinner.
I’ll admit live in constant amnesia that these things matter, because I grew up Unitarian Universalist, and so I know no other way to worship and preach.
So I ask you what I ask the Coming of Age class:
What are your hard-won freedoms, and what are your corresponding obligations?
You have the freedom to disagree, and the obligation to love your neighbor.
You have the freedom to question your preacher, and the obligation to engage the answer.
You have the freedom to explore belief, and the obligation to support each other’s exploration of their beliefs.
You have the freedom to participate in ritual, and the obligation to determine if the experience has satisfied your soul.
All the world is a stage, and we the players. The theatre of religious freedom plays out in the Georgia legislature, in houses of worship across our world, and in the quality of our actions and relationships.
We are actors, we are spectators, we are liberal religious freedom fighters.
Saved by love, liberated by the leaders of long ago in a far away land, called by obligation to live Francis Dávid’s truth as our own legacy: that we need not think alike to love alike.