Polish Brethren and Unitarian History
Workshop Report contributed by Dallis Radamaker
The Rev. Dr. Jay Atkinson, Minister Emeritus of the UU Church of Studio City in California, and research scholar in Unitarian Universalist history and theology at the Starr King School for the Ministry, was with us in Dijon.
He contributed a workshop on the “Polish Brethren” which gave an interesting and enlightening glimpse into the history of a now little-known liberal Protestant group which did great things in Poland until swept away by the counter-reformation.
Jay explained how the sudden wide availability of bibles in their native languages made theologians of everyone in Europe after 1500 and revealed the wide gap between the Christian religion’s founding documents and the then present state of the church.
Believers who were able to hold the word of God in their hands and read it themselves were soon tempted to reject all other sources of religious inspiration. The great battle cry of the reform became “sola scriptura,” roughly “Nothing else matters but what is written in the Bible.”
Carrying this motto to its logical extreme, radicals within Poland’s Calvinist (Reformed) churches, beginning in 1556 with Peter Gonesius (a student of Matteo Gribaldi in Padua and influenced by Michael Servetus), could be found preaching the Unitarian idea that the doctrine of the trinity was a non-Biblical accretion. This was too much for the orthodox, who eventually split off, leaving the radical thinkers to pursue their pathway as “Polish Brethren.” They were re-energized after 1580 by the great Faustus Socinus, whose organizational skills and theological vision made the movement’s ideology known outside Poland as “Socinianism.”
The Brethren supported a flourishing press and academy at Raków, whose liberal publications had great influence on Protestant thought across Europe, particularly in Holland, and eventually in England and America. The Brethren also had some happy influence on the actual conditions of life for ordinary Christians – for instance, the radical egalitarianism of the movement led some wealthy adherents to free their serfs and others to hold their lands in common. But all was destroyed and the liberal remnant driven out as part of the general Catholic victory in Poland after 1660.
Jay showed slides from a visit he made some years ago to Raków, where efforts are now being made to restore the memory and some of the sites associated with the brief Proto-unitarian adventure in Poland. He also recommended a book—“Racovia: an Early Liberal Religious Community”—by his friend Phillip Hewett, who was on that same trip.