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Two features characterised 16th-century Italy: the scandalous behaviour of the Roman Catholic priesthood and the humanist Renaissance. They were not unconnected, since many thinking people, educated and uneducated, became increasingly disenchanted with a corrupt and venal church, seeing in the "new learning" a path to progress and a new window on the world.
In many ways intellectually Italy was more ready for the Reformation than northern Europe, for there was a current of both dissatisfaction and constructive thinking in Italy that ran disturbingly deep. But two factors checked the current and caused it to flow elsewhere. One was the political situation in northern Europe which led to the development of the reformed national churches; the other was the strength and power of the Inquisition in Italy. The Romanist hierarchy had a tremendous hold over the bodies of Italians even if it did not fully hold their minds in thrall. Almost every scholar in Italy who sought to develop an evangelical or Biblical faith had to leave the country - if he could.
In the I540's a group of men, who came to be known as the Vicenza Society after the city in which they met, endeavoured to study the Scriptures and distil from them a faith free from Romanist dogma. There is no doubt they were considerably influenced by the writings and preaching of Brethren in Christ in areas to the north, and indeed felt themselves to be a part of the same thoroughgoing movement of return to the original Gospel and practice of Christianity. Their views on the Godhead were to be of profound significance:
"There is but one most high God, who created all things by His mighty word, and preserves them by His will and good
providence ... His only Son, Jesus Christ, was as to his nature a man, but not merely a man, having been conceived of the Holy Spirit by the virgin Mary."
This simple, apostolic view of Jesus Christ, expressed thus in Vicenza was to be of profound significance, for it was to be a cardinal tenet of faith of a wide fellowship of Brethren over a large part of Europe. One day there was a sudden interruption of the Society's proceedings as soldiers burst into the gathering. Three whom the authorities viewed as ringleaders were arrested; Tervisiani and Francis de Ruega were executed, Chiari was imprisoned. The rest made a hasty departure, as they knew that the tender mercies of the Inquisition, established in a fervour of zeal in 1542, were cruel. They dispersed in fact over Europe: some, including Valentino Gentilis and Darius Sozzini joined Brethren in Moravia; Laelio Sozzini went to Switzerland.
When Laelio reached Switzerland, Calvin was installed in Geneva and engaged in his celebrated controversy with the Spaniard Miguel Serveto over the doctrine of the Trinity(1). Laelio joined issue himself with Calvin, sending him lists of questions which only brought an "angry and pettish letter" in reply. Serveto was not an "anabaptist" and his views on the nature of Christ did not coincide with those of Sozzini or the Brethren, but the notoriety of the trial of Serveto in Geneva brought the whole issue very clearly into public light; whether the proof was plain in the Bible or not, the "Reformed" churches meant to uphold the full trinitarian dogma at all costs. The spirit of Calvin is illustrated by his letter to Viret, a henchman of his in Lausanne, stating that he would be satisfied with no atonement for Serveto's criticism of his creed short of the death of his adversary, should the disposal of his life ever be in his power. Calvin never disguised his implacable hatred of Serveto, calling him a dog; when the disposal of his life did come into his power and he had Serveto burned alive, he savagely exults after his execution:
"Lest idle scoundrels should glory in the insane obstinacy of the man, there appeared in his death a beastly stupidity; whence it might be concluded, that on the subject of religion he never was in earnest."
It is not surprising that Laelio Sozzini did not stay to argue very long with Calvin and went elsewhere.
(1) See the series on Servetus in The Christadelphian, 1962.
A Fellowship of Churches
By 1550 there was a fellowship of churches in northern Italy and adjoining areas of Switzerland which the historian Leclerc calls "anabaptist", and though their connections with the Brethren in Christ of Germanic Switzerland and the Tyrol have not been clearly defined, they probably were close. In this year these congregations held a conference in Venice. In a society where tenets of faith were subject to constant free discussion, there were of necessity differing viewpoints on interpretations and also varying emphases. The aim of the conferences was, as far as can be ascertained, twofold: to clarify certain points of doctrine and discuss the basic framework of the church's organisation, and also to provide a fraternal atmosphere for a solemn period of devotion and worship. Sixty delegates met together, all congregations sending at least one delegate and some sending two. There was Iseppo of Asola; Celio Curio, who later became known as "the apostle of freedom of conscience", played a prominent role; but perhaps most outstanding was Negri. A former abbot, he had forsaken this position to assist a humble group of Brethren, offering them 1000 ducats a year from his private income in order to further their cause. The congregations themselves paid the travelling expenses of their own delegates, sharing the cost according to their means.
The conference lasted, probably by design, forty days. Each first day of the week during this period the Lord's Supper was celebrated in a solemn but simple form. We are told that "the utmost devoutness seems to have characterised the entire proceedings of the convention". At the close of the forty days a statement was issued listing those points upon which the delegates had deliberated and which they considered were substantiated by their close scrutiny of the Scriptures. Among them were the following
1. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are to be accepted as our fundamental authority.
2. Christ is man only, but filled with all the power of God.
3. Where Scripture speaks of angels, it sometimes can mean human messengers.
4. There is only one devil, namely human selfishness.
5. By the serpent in Eden, nothing else than this is to be understood.
6. There is no other hell but the grave.
7. If and when the elect die, they slumber till the day of judgement, when they shall be awakened. The souls of the godless and ignorant die with their bodies just as in the case of the beasts.
8. The elect are justified through God's eternal mercy and love.
In addition it was agreed by all the congregations that admission to the fellowship of the church should be by immersion of adult believers.
If the delegates looked for a period of development in Italy following their conference, they were disappointed. "No punishment was deemed serious enough for them", and in the face of swift persecution many of them had to flee or go into hiding. Some went to the Grisons, Switzerland and to the Tyrol, but there conditions were worse, and only those who made their way as far as Poland found in the "ecclesia minor" there a temporary refuge and an opportunity for furthering their faith.
Flight from Italy
One Italian who reached Poland came to wield considerable influence upon the fortunes of the Brethren there and elsewhere, though it was probably less than some historians have claimed. Fausto Sozzini, a relative of Laelio Sozzini mentioned earlier, has been so abused and vilified by both contemporary and succeeding scholars that it is well to record the opinion of George Ashwell, an Anglo-Catholic fellow of Wadham College, Oxford in the seventeenth century, and certainly no sympathiser with Sozzini's cause:
"Qualities which excite admiration and attract the regard of men were united, so that he charmed, as it were by a kind of fascination, all with whom he conversed and left on the minds of all strong impressions of admiration and love. He so excelled in lofty genius and persuasive character, such was the strength of his reasoning and the force of his eloquence, so great were his natural endowments and so exemplary was his life, that he appeared formed to captivate the affections of mankind."
Ashwell's purpose in so eulogising Sozzini is to suggest that the Polish Brethren and those influenced by them were mesmerised by Fausto's personality rather than convinced by the Scriptures; we must account the description as therefore an exaggerated one, but the impression remains that he must have been a strikingly attractive
personality as compared, for example, with the more famous "reformers". Ashwell considered Sozzini to be "the devil's great snare" and warned people against one who clearly was a Satan masquerading as an angel of light.
With the departure from Italy of leading intellectuals such as Ochino, the Sozzinis and Gentilis, the Biblical reform movement ceased to make headway there and the Inquisition made short shrift of the vestiges that remained. Meanwhile the seed which had thus germinated in central and southern Europe began to put forth healthy and vigorous shoots in the Slavic lands.
One of the Italian emigres found a home in England; this was Bernardo Ochino, who became associated with and had considerable influence over a community known as the "Strangers' Church" in London. This congregation, whose persistence over several decades is witnessed to by many contemporary documents, owed its origin to small groups of Brethren from various parts of Europe who sought refuge in England. They arrived at least as early as 1534, for in 1535 ten of them were burnt in London as an "occasion of gleeful jollity". Germans and Dutch predominated, with Swiss and Italians and later Poles and Moravians. International in outlook, they consistently sought adherents from among their hosts in London, but were harassed and hindered by prelates and government; their influence was more in the nature of a subtle leavening of English protestantism than by the actual making of large numbers of converts.
The anti-trinitarianism of the group was a cause of deep suspicion. Wrote John Assheton in 1548:
"The Holy Ghost is not God but a certain power of the Father. Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary but was not the true and living God."
On April 25th, 1551, a leading member, George van Parris, a physician originally from Mainz, Germany, was roasted alive at Smithfield after conviction on a charge of denying infant baptism and the Trinity. Other burnings followed spasmodically. We have, for example, the following instructions of Queen Elizabeth to the sheriffs of London in 1575:
Since it has been made known to us by the Reverend Fathers in Christ the Bishops of London and Rochester and by Inquisitors, that John Peeters and Henry Turwert, Flemings by birth, guilty of enormities like the wicked crime of heresy and the detestable sect of the 'anabaptists', did presumptuously and from a kind of stubbornness, uphold and defend the aforesaid wicked crime of heresy and the detestable sect of the 'anabaptists'; the Bishop of London has now passed that they are heretics condemned to be eliminated from the Lord's flock by the punishment appropriate.
We therefore, being zealous for justice and to root out and extirpate errors of this kind wherever found, command that you cause the said John Peeters and Henry Turwert to be taken to a public open place at West Smithfield to be really burned in that same fire for an example to other men lest they fall into the same crime.
Signed, sealed, etc."
A remarkable confession of faith, written by these two men in a foul London jail in the same year, has been preserved. It vigorously affirms their hope in the promises of God, in the resurrection of those who sleep in death and in the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Such were the tender mercies of England's Elizabethan age, and such one of the pleasant sports of "Merrie England". The eastern counties, Norfolk and Suffolk, being closest to the Netherlands and centres of the wool and cloth trades, witnessed a considerable number of fiery executions during the 16th century. After a rather notorious trial, an Ipswich tanner, Peter Cole, was roasted before curious crowds at Norwich in 1587. A group of fourteen were burnt at the instigation of Cranmer (who of course, was to expire by the same method himself under Mary I). Turner comments: "What they really suffered for was their pacifism, their personal faith in Christ, their opposition to the lending of money (on usury) and, above all, their religious toleration." Roasting, incidentally, was normally reserved for Brethren who were considered the worst cases; furze was fixed to beard and face -- a ceremony known laconically as "trimming the dog's beard" and carried out invariably by officiating clergy. Most of the principal factions burnt each other in their blind bigotry at this period, but the Brethren seem to have
been universally detested by the authorities for their lack of a spirit of intolerance and revenge. A Parliamentary Commission was appointed to hunt them out, which seems to indicate that they exercised considerable influence.
A Heinous Heresy!
One of the most heinous heresies of sixteenth-century Brethren, evident from the "Thirty Dialogues" of Ochino onwards, wasjudging by the vituperation it provoked -- their belief in the revelation of the love of God in Christ. Contemporary theology, Roman and Protestant alike, presented the death of Jesus as a sacrifice to appease the wrath of an offended Deity and so as a means of reconciling a distant God to man. In keeping with their whole attitude to the godly life, the God of the Brethren was a God of love, and the Cross a revelation of that love. On Calvary God gave; it was a supreme appeal by a God who "takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked", to men alienated by their own follies, that they might be reconciled to Him through understanding the Word, repentance and baptism, based for example on 2 Corinthians 5:19: "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself." In the 16th century such a view of God was self-condemned and cried out for extirpation. Unfortunately there was a blind zeal for a God far removed from the yearning divinity in Hosea or the Father to whom the prodigal returned.
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