God is One! 400 Years of Unitarianism

This is the story of Francis David, known in Latin as Franciscus Davidis and in Hungarian as Davidus Ferenz. He was born in Kolozsvar, Transylvania, a principality bounded by the Carpathian Mountains in what is now the northwestern part of Romania. Francis David was the son of a shoemaker. He studied to be a Roman Catholic priest and became literate in German, Hungarian, and Latin. He changed to Lutheranism and served a large Lutheran church in his hometown, Kolozsvar, or Cluj as it is in Romanian. He quickly became a leader of Lutheranism, was idolized by the people, and was appointed bishop. Dr. George Biandrata, court physician to King John Sigismund, then influenced him. Dr. Biandrata was liberal in his religion and David became Calvinist and was appointed bishop in that church. David was the most eloquent debater, the most famous speaker in Transylvania and he knew his Bible from one end to the other.

Religious debates were popular then. They were formal disputations in which each side appointed its best debaters to present and defend carefully framed theses and antitheses, while stenographic reports were taken by the secretaries. The king himself often took part and clergy and nobles attended in large numbers. Debates were as popular as jousts and tournaments were in an earlier time; or as popular as the most burning political questions are now. Debates about the nature of God, the real or symbolic presence of Christ in the communion, and the single or dual nature of Christ took place.

Dr. George Biandrata and David held a conference in Torda to discuss religion. They adopted a Unitarian position and wrote a catechism. They wanted to restore the New Testament as the basis for all Christians to unite. In 1566 David published his book, On The True and False Knowledge of the One God, and from then his battle cry was Egy az Isten!—“God is One!” The book ridiculed the doctrine of the Trinity as absurd. That angered the orthodox but it appealed to the common people, the majority of whom were liberal. David dedicated the book to King John and wrote, “There is no greater piece of folly than to try to exercise power over conscience and soul, both of which are subject only to their creator.”

Acrimony flew back and forth and in January 1568 King John called the Diet of Torda, from which came his famous decree, The Act of Religious Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience. The king decreed,

Preachers shall be allowed to preach the Gospel everywhere, each according to his own understanding of it. If the community wish to accept such preaching, well and good; if not, they shall not be compelled, but shall be allowed to keep the preachers they prefer. No one shall be made to suffer on account of his religion, since faith is the gift of God.

That was the first time in western history a king had been willing to have his subjects profess a religion different from his. Now remember that was the same age in which the Inquisition was crushing out religious freedom, the same age when Calvin and his cohorts burned heretics at the stake, when Luther wrote, “Let heads roll in the streets,” and when the massacre of St. Bartholomew slew 30,000 Protestants in France.

King John called a general synod of ministers of both Hungary and Transylvania to meet in his palace. Five debaters, led by David and Biandrata on the Unitarian side were against six on the Calvinist side, headed by Bishop PeterMelius. It was the greatest debate in Unitarian history. In the king’s palace were gathered the whole court and great throngs of ministers and nobles. The formal debate began at 5 a.m. on March 8, 1568. It lasted ten days and was conducted entirely in Latin.

The Calvinists appealed to the authority of the Bible, the creeds, the church Fathers, and the orthodox theologians. David appealed to the Bible alone. The debate began with heat and got hotter. Bishop Meilus said in his opening statement, “If I win this debate you will be executed.” David replied in his opening, “If I wish this debate you will be given the freedom due to every son of God.” On the ninth day the Calvinists asked not to be forced to listen further but King John refused them. The debate ended the next day with victory for the Unitarians; or, as the Calvinist historians said, “without any profit to the Church of Christ.”

David covered himself with glory. He returned to Kolozsvar in complete triumph. Crowds received him and because there was not room enough in the cathedral for the crowds they made him mount a large boulder at a street corner to speak to them. The boulder is preserved by the Unitarians of Kolozsvar as a sacred relic. It is inside the great Unitarian church in Kolozsvar. So great was his eloquence that the whole town became Unitarian. The remaining Lutherans left Kolozsvar in disgust. Kolozsvar was then a Unitarian city. All its churches and schools and all members of the City Council were Unitarian. Francis David, former Lutheran Bishop, former Calvinist Bishop, now became Unitarian Bishop, the head of all our churches. He was the only man in history to be bishop in three different churches.

The Calvinists wrote furiously against the Unitarians. Where they held power they persecuted and drove out Unitarians. King John summoned them and said if the Calvinists didn’t believe in freedom of conscience they had better remove to some other country. He said, “We wish that in our dominions there be freedom of conscience, for we know that faith is the gift of God, and that one’s conscience cannot be forced.”

That was the golden age of Unitarianism. It spread rapidly among the nobility, clergy, and peasants. Generals, judges, and councilors became Unitarian. Professors and students converted. The orthodox abandoned even their monasteries and the Unitarians turned them into universities. The press spread the message. Tracts, books, and articles were published—in Latin for the scholars, in Hungarian for the common people. There were now over 500 Unitarian churches in the Kingdom. Note that Unitarianism was not the official church. There was freedom for all churches alike. Dr. Earl Morse Wilbur wrote,

It is worthy of note that at the only time in history when there has been a Unitarian king on the throne, and a Unitarian government in power, they used their power not to oppress other forms of religion, nor to secure exceptional privileges for their own, but to insist upon equal rights and privileges for all.

And then, on March 15, 1571, not quite 31 years of age, King John died. Unitarianism continued to spread but the familiar pattern of persecution began. A Lutheran bishop persuaded the government, headed then by a Roman Catholic, to behead two prominent Unitarians as heretics. Wealthy Unitarians protested and three Calvinists were condemned to death as murderers. The Calvinists panicked but the Unitarians interceded, saying they did not want revenge, and a fine was levied. That accomplished the goal and the Calvinists were more peaceful after that.

The orthodox intrigued with the new king to convince him that Unitarians were heretics and therefore disloyal. The Unitarians were forbidden to publish anything and were expelled from court. “Innovators” were banished, imprisonment or death decreed for blasphemy.

Biandrata, still the court physician, managed to improve things a little and in 1576 the office of Unitarian bishop was given legal recognition. The next king was less tolerant and more restrictive measures were enacted. The Unitarian bishop was forbidden to visit his churches. The king invited the Jesuits into the kingdom in 1579 and the reign of terror began.

Francis David remained bold and Biandrata warned him that his boldness would cause persecution. David refused to remain silent, saying it would be hypocrisy to do so. He kept speaking and was imprisoned in his own house. He escaped and went to the cathedral to preach a final sermon, warning the people of persecution to come and eloquently defending the Unitarian doctrine. It was his last sermon and he closed it by saying, Whatever the world may say, it must some time become clear that God is but one. “Egy az Isten”—God is One! Then he was arrested.

David’s confinement was made worse. Not even his family was allowed to visit him. He was not allowed treatment for his illness. Too weak to stand, he was taken to court in a wagon. Arguing still for Unitarianism, the Jesuits who counseled the king pronounced his teachings as damnable blasphemy. Friends asked for mercy but the Jesuits wanted blood. David, sick and pitifully weak, could hardly move hand or foot, and he had to be lifted and carried from one place to another. Fearing to burn so famous a man, they condemned him to life imprisonment. He was locked in a cell in the old damp castle at Deva. His illness was not treated and he died of neglect on November 15, 1579. His body was thrown into an unmarked grave, whose location is not known to this day.

David was an untiring student of the Bible. He had great personal courage and never shrank from taking the next step in his thinking—not pleasant to those who want a reformer to think something and never change his mind. He was not a man to think something in his heart and keep silent about it in the pulpit. Neither bribes nor threats could move him from faithfulness to the truth as he saw it. He still is revered throughout Hungary and Transylvania as a man of God.

After David’s death there was no effective leadership and Calvinist persecution joined the Jesuits. Unitarians were put to death on false charges of treason. Their churches and the homes of the wealthy were burned, pillaged, and defaced.

In 1595 Prince Sigismund surrendered his government to the Emperor Rudolph and the bloody General Basta was sent to exterminate all Unitarians from Transylvania. Unitarian churches were taken away and given to the orthodox. The chief Unitarian Church in Kolozsvar, David’s own church, was given to the Jesuits. General Barbiano, a Roman monk turned soldier, declared he would kill every grown person in Hungary and Transylvania who refused to convert to Roman Catholicism. So cruel was General Basta that for generations his name was used to frighten children. Basta hung ministers up to smother in the smoke from piles of their own burned books. He flayed others alive. Soldiers pillaged houses of Unitarian nobles, ravished their wives and daughters. The Unitarians put up brave and noble battle but they were no match for the superior armed might of the cruel Jesuits. General Basta became more cruel than ever, but Unitarians continued to worship in private homes. Wasted as they were by war and persecution, they stuck wonderfully fast to their faith under the leadership of fearless and faithful bishops.

Oppressive laws were enacted. Much of the persecution was not literally against Unitarianism as such. When religious bigotry wishes to pursue its course of persecution, it usually finds another pretext. Treason is a convenient excuse to close printing houses and churches. The persecution continued another one and a half centuries, and Unitarians watched one after another heroic leader beheaded, banished, despoiled of his goods, and treated in the most shameful ways. They saw their people stoned in the streets, their children mobbed, wives pilloried, and property confiscated.

But the Unitarians survived because of their heroic faithfulness. They developed intense loyalty to their religion. Unitarians in Transylvania flourished in the deeper spiritual meaning of that word. They risked persecution to help those already persecuted. They took them into their homes and fed them when their homes had been burned or sacked. They worshiped privately when it was a criminal offense to do so. Their dedication came from deep travail, from fighting for something more valuable than life itself, from placing honor above material well being, from a dedication to God that no earthly prince could subvert. The Calvinists and Jesuits took over their churches and schools and confiscated their goods. They reduced the nobility to peasantry but the Unitarians held it better to be a peasant with honor than a nobleman without it.

And there it remains today: Unitarianism as a strong peasant movement, the nobility and aristocracy still Calvinist or Catholic. They know their history well and recount to each generation the stories I have just told. A parishioner in Youngstown, Ohio came to America from Transylvania. He spoke little English but he was a devoted member of the Unitarian church. Once I asked why he attended our church when there were Hungarian churches in town that spoke his language. His reply was simple: “I am Unitarius. This is my church.” Then in his broken English he recounted with obvious pride the legends about Davidus Ferencz.

That is our heritage. That is how our religion came to us as a free movement, filled with the rich tradition and heroes and mighty struggles of ages now gone, but which as we remember and take to our hearts build foundations for our spiritual well-being.

In Transylvania Unitarianism has, in the face of cruel and almost continuous oppression, maintained an unbroken and heroic existence for more than four centuries. There are about 85,000 Unitarians there today. They elect bishops to oversee their spiritual needs. They flourish, build new churches, and hold firm in their faith. The churches are crowded and the young are devoted to the religion of their ancestors.

In the museum in Torda hangs an enormous mural. It covers the whole wall. It depicts the famous debate between David and Melius, the debate that took place between March 8 and 18, 1568. Reproductions of that mural are common in the churches and homes of Transylvania.

And the Unitarian peasant, sitting in his home high in the Carpathian Mountains, after his day’s work planting and plowing, reads his Bible, teaches doctrine and scripture to his children. And he recounts the heroic struggles of his people. He remembers to them the great saints of their religion: Francis David, George Biandrata, and King John Sigismund. And he hopes that some time there will arise another champion to lead once more to a day when everyone can sit under their own vine and fig tree with none to make them afraid.

In every home is repeated often the words that are carved on every church, the words of Francis David: Egy az Isten – God is One.

©2003 J. Frank Schulman. All rights reserved.