Last Updated on : Sunday, October 7, 2012
AFTER the brief survey of some of the fundamental principles and tenets upon which the society of the Brethren in Christ was built up in the early stages of its existence, attention will now be focused upon further historical development. Other important principles arising from this development will be considered in their place.
One day in 1546 or thereabouts a certain Rudolph Martin was browsing through the library of a Polish nobleman in Krakow. Clearly religion was very much an interest of this gentleman, and Martin observed him praying to the Trinity. As he concluded, Martin approached his host. "My Lord", he said, "have you then three Gods?" A lengthy discussion followed, and ultimately Martin succeeded in convincing the nobleman John Tricessius that
"the Father alone is true God; the Son is not co-eternal with the Father, nor yet omnipotent, nor consubstantial nor equal to Him, but is one with Him in will; and that the Holy Spirit is the power or operating energy of God".
The secretary of the Polish king, one Andrew Modrevius, was also a party to these discussions and was similarly converted to Martin's views.
Rudolph Martin, a colourful figure from among the Brethren in the Netherlands, had emigrated to Poland from his homeland after having fallen out with other Dutch Brethren, particularly Obbe Phillips and Menno Simons, over this very question of the nature of Christ. The controversy led to the definitive development of the Mennonites, followers of Simons, as that wing of the Brethren became known which taught the full Deity of Christ. For many years, however, Martin's view continued to be held by many Brethren in the Netherlands.
MAP OF POLAND, 1600
Other Brethren from Switzerland, Germany, Moravia and the Habsburg lands made their way to Poland as persecution became ever more severe and it became known that King Sigismund II of Poland was quite well disposed towards a, non- trinitarian view of Christ, believers' baptism and freedom of Biblical study. In fact, the many Germanic surnames which were to be found among the 16th and 17th century Polish Brethren would suggest that these emigres and their descendants formed a considerable proportion of the community.
The development of the Brethren as a distinctive religious, social and educational force of considerable significance in Poland and eastern Europe in the 16th century was influenced by men from a variety of origins. Francis Lismanin, a former monk from Corsica, arrived in 1551, and was instrumental in the conversion of Gregory Paul, a Krakow cleric of wide learning and scholarship. In the same year, Laelio Sozzini made a visit to Poland. In 1558 a synod was held at Princzow and prominent in the proceedings was the Piedmontese Blandrata, who almost certainly was originally of Vaudois background. To another similar conference held in the same town five years later came the Italian Gentilis from Moravia. He left subsequently to go to Switzerland where he was arrested and beheaded.
Education and Social Reform
In 1569 Sieninski, a prominent member of the Brethren, founded the settlement of Rakow on a wooded plateau north-cast of the city of Krakow, including a college and publishing house as well as farms and craft industries. The college, though fulfilling a need for theological and higher education among the Brethren, became a liberal arts institution of international repute and virtual university status during the later part of its thirty-six years of existence. Many of its faculty were scholars of unquestioned learning, and at the height of its influence it drew a thousand students from many parts of Europe, including three hundred from families of European nobility. It became known as the "Sarmatian Athens", but its associated publishing activities gradually aroused the bitter hostility of the Jesuits, as an increasing flood of books inimical to their doctrines came off the Rakow press. The still prevailing use of Latin as an international language among scholars ensured a wide dissemination of these publications,
Visitors to Rakow and other centres of the Brethren from other parts of Europe expressed surprise at the atmosphere they found and at the spirit of well-being which prevailed. A Scot who spent some time at Rakow commented that he felt he had been transported into another world:
"For whereas elsewhere all was full of wars and tumult, there all was quiet, men were calm and moderate in behaviour, although they were spirited in debate and expert in language." Education was not the only field in which the Brethren in Poland sought to express their Christianity. Gentry who were converted abolished serfdom three hundred years before it was abolished finally in Europe; some sold their estates or performed minor social and economic revolutions on their estates.
In the wide spaces of eastern Europe, settlement was at this period still comparatively sparse and scattered; there were still great forest tracts in the centre and south of Poland, and some of the settlements composed of families of Brethren were of a pioneer nature. Since communications were poor, it is quite surprising how wide an influence in Europe they exerted. The solid, hardworking, conscientious attitude which had commended itself to the Moravian nobility similarly impressed the Polish landowners who encouraged settlement on their lands, and for longer than in any other European country resisted the pressure of Jesuit calumny and opposition. The Jesuits entered Poland in 1564, only a year after the second synod of Pinczow, and for fifty years worked surreptitiously to end toleration and reimpose Roman Catholic domination.
Fausto Sozzini, exiled from Italy, reached the Cluj region of what is now Romania after various wanderings, and made the acquaintance of Brethren there. Though an ardent advocate of most of their basic tenets Sozzini had an independent attitude in certain respects and never became a member. The principal barrier was the Brethren's insistence upon the necessity of his being baptized, which for some reason Sozzini never accepted. The strain apparent in Cluj intensified when he reached Poland. Officially he was "not permitted to join in communion with the churches or to have any voice in the direction of their affairs", but in fact by his personality and his voluminous writings he won the personal friendship of many of the Brethren and his views commanded considerable respect in private. Posthumously, his influence was probably
greater than during his lifetime. That wing of the Brethren which most clearly expressed non-trinitarian views became known to 17th century and later historians as Socinians, an appellation rejected as completely by themselves as the contemporary designation "anabaptist".
A "Confession of Faith"
The most prominent of the 16th century Polish Brethren was probably Georg Schomann, a man of much ability whose home was in Krakow but whose antecedents are obscure. In 1574 Alexander Turobinczyck, a printer in that city, published a small duodecimo work entitled "Confession of Faith of the Congregation assembled in Poland". This is considered to be basically Schomann's work. This "curious catechism", as the church historian Mosheim unkindly described it, opens with a challenging preamble:
"The little and afflicted flock in Poland, which is baptized in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, sends greeting to all those who thirst after eternal salvation; praying most earnestly that grace and peace may be shed upon them by the one supreme God and Father, through His only begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who was crucified."
The introduction goes on to urge the reader to abandon the doctrine of Babylon and the conduct and conversation of Sodom and to take refuge in the ark of Noah.
The document is remarkable for its clear presentation of the tenets of faith of the community. Its form is a common one, beginning with God, then Jesus, the Holy Spirit, justification, oaths, baptism and so forth. The careful plainness of two of the items needs no comment:
"Jesus, our mediator before the throne of God is a man who was formerly promised to the fathers by the prophets, and in later days was born of the seed of David, and whom God, his Father, 'has made Lord and Christ', by whom He created the new world, to the end that, after the supreme God, we should believe in him, adore and invoke him, hear his voice, imitate his example, and find in him rest to our souls".
"Justification consists in the remission of all our past sins, through the grace and mercy of God, in and by our Lord Jesus Christ, without our merits and works, and in consequence of a,
lively faith. It also consists in the certain hope of life eternal, in the true and unfeigned amendment of our lives and conversation, through the assistance of the divine spirit, to the glory of God the Father, and the edification of our neighbours."
Similarly baptism is described as being "immersion and subsequent emersion"; and the Lord's supper as a memorial.
The Racovian Catechism
The 1574 Confession, short though it was, undoubtedly paved the way for the famous -- or notorious, according to one's viewpoin Racovian Catechism drawn up not later than 1605 by Smaltzy, Moscorovy and Volkel. This large and detailed exposition of the faith of the "Brethren in Poland and Lithuania who confess One God the Father" ran through many editions and several translations and was still being reprinted as late as 1812. Minor alterations were made, but substantially the work remained the same for two hundred years. In many countries, including England, it was completely banned and its possessors punished, often by death.
The I609 edition opened with what, by any Christian standard, is a splendid preface by Joachim Stegman and the most brilliant of the Rakow professors, Andrew Wissowaty, Fausto Sozzini's grandson. It is a compelling plea for what was then a revolutionary approach to Christian teaching and church life. He explains the way in which the Brethren were organised:
"We all are brethren, to no one of whom is given authority and dominion over the conscience of another. For although some of the brethren may excel others in spirituality, yet in respect to freedom, and the right of sonship, all are equal."
A professed aim of the catechism was that "our equity, gentleness and modesty should be known to all men". Considered especially against the background of its intolerant age, and compared with many contemporary conceits that bore the title of catechism, it certainly can be said to have succeeded in this aim if in no other. Its tone is reasonable, its approach appealing and in keeping with the spirit of Christ. It was this fact, joined with teachings deemed blasphemously heretical, which caused it to become hated by the generality of prelates and theologians.
As always with the Brethren, the first section of the catechism proper deals with the authority of Scripture. The view is developed
PHOTOGRAPH OF TITLE-PAGE OF THE RAKOW CATHECHISM 1605 (edition of 1652)
that any man or woman who comes to the Bible with a truly seeking spirit can without doubt find its true teaching consistently and plainly revealed, despite some doubtful passages. Manifestly, from the confusion that reigns, many do not do so, and a suggestion is offered as to the cause of the multiplicity of interpretations of the Christian Gospel:
"Although some of them may arise from the obscurity of particular texts, yet the greatest number must be charged to men's own fault. For either they read the Scriptures with negligence, or bring not with them a sincere heart, disengaged from all corrupt desires; or have their minds warped by prejudice; or seek not divine assistance with becoming earnestness."
Section two of the work deals with the way of salvation, explaining with copious references to and quotations from Scripture that man does not possess an immortal soul but is a sinner cursed with sin and consequent mortality. The way to immortality lies in the knowledge of and obedience to the truth of the Gospel. Faith to the Brethren meant far more than the Lutheran concept: it involved an understanding, an intellectual and moral cognisance of a certain "Way", of promises made by God, of "the first principles of the oracles of God" - coupled with an obedient bending of self to the revealed will of God.
The True Divinity of Christ
After a section in which the nature and will of God is considered, there is a long section on the person of Christ. Eight reasons are adduced why Jesus could not be God, one of the most cogent of which is that Jesus is portrayed in the New Testament as ascribing divine words, attributes and works to God, not divine nature to himself. Almost every passage bearing on the topic is discussed, some in a more thoroughly convincing manner than others, but in every case with fairness, in an attempt to arrive at a consistent, unified and harmonious view of the person of the Redeemer. Despite the fact that the full trinitarian deity of Jesus of Nazareth is rejected, yet there is throughout a reverent attitude to the divine Sonship of Christ and a careful insistence that Jesus is more than other men, that he revealed the Father, that in him dwelt the character and powers of God.
The Christ of the Rakow catechism is not the simple ethical teacher of later Unitarianism. Although modern Unitarians look upon this work and its authors as in some measure the source of their own religious view, in fact there is little similarity, The Brethren of Rakow were not rationalists in the Unitarian sense, but thorough-going Biblicists; they considered that the Jesus of the New Testament was the true Jesus, not the God of very God of the 4th and 5th century ecclesiastical councils. They saw the need for faith in religion, but they saw no sense or point in accepting a view of Deity which was inconsistent with itself and with the apostolic doctrines which all Christians at least in theory professed to follow.
Many passages in John's Gospel which deal with the person and attributes of Christ are considered at length. Typical is the following on John 17:5:
"That a person may have had something, and consequently may have had glory, with the Father before the world was, without its being concluded that he actually existed, is evident from 2 Timothy I:9 where the apostle says of believers that grace was given to them before the world began. Besides it is here (in John 17) stated that Christ prayed for this glory. Christ beseeches God to give him, in actual possession, with Himself, the glory which he had with Him, in purpose and decrees, before the world was. For it is often said that a person has something with any one, when it is promised, or is destined for him. On this account believers are frequently said by this evangelist to have eternal life. Hence it happens that Christ does not say absolutely that he had had that glory, but that he had had it with the Father; as if he had said that he now prayed to have actually conferred upon him that glory which had been laid up for him with the Father of old and before the creation of the world."
The later sections of the catechism deal with a wide range of Christian doctrine: baptism, the Supper, faith, freewill, justification, eternal life, the work of the Holy Spirit (two forms, the one continuing for a time only, visible; the other perpetual, invisible), the death of Jesus, resurrection, the future age. The church is seen as a partly visible, partly invisible community of believers:
"Those who truly confide in Christ and obey him; and are therefore, in the most perfect sense, his body; an assembly or congregation whom, because we cannot infallibly judge the
hearts of men, we shall not fully recognise except at the coming of Christ."
The whole aim of Christianity is put forward as the transformation of the moral being; the teachings and beliefs are to be indelibly printed on the mind and the whole of life regulated "conformably to their directions".
In the early 17th century the Brethren were fortunate in possessing both a period of religious freedom in Poland and a number of gifted thinkers, writers and organisers. Johann Crell, Jonas Schlichting and Andrew Wissowaty were prolific writers whose work was collected in the "Library of the Polish Brethren", published in 1666 in Amsterdam. It is significant that Sozzini's works were not included when the series of eight massive folios was first published. Two later volumes added writings by Przipcovius and Brenius. Brenius was a keen student of prophecy and his most important work -- and, judging by the refutations published, the most unwelcome outside the brotherhood -- was entitled "The Glorious Reign of Christ and the Church on this earth". It expounded at considerable length the early Christian view that there would be a resurrection of the pious dead to reign on the earth for a thousand years. It postulated the regathering of the twelve tribes of Israel to the land of Israel, Jerusalem and Judaea as the future centre of the kingdom of God, ruled by those faithful who will be blessed with bodily and substantial immortality. The wicked, those wilfully resisting divine favour, will be "punished with everlasting destruction" (2 Thessalonians I). "The time of the establishment of this kingdom is unknown, but imminent."
Copies of this work circulated in Britain as well as on the Continent, along with contemporary efforts to refute it. Hedworth and Knowles, referred to in a later chapter, corresponded concerning points in it and implied that it was well known.
Death and Resurrection
Joachim Stegman, for a time principal of the Rakow college, and later a preacher at Cluj in Romania, published in 1633 what came to be known as the "Brevis Discussio", a "brief discourse" concerning the prevailing opinion of Calvin and Luther "wherein they hold that the dead live".
Certainly neither Lutherans nor Calvinists had satisfactorily reconciled Scriptual teaching concerning the death state and bodily resurrection with their support, for reasons of expediency, of the late patristic and medieval belief in immediate transfer of departed souls to heaven or hell. Stegman challenges and easily penetrates the illogical position, endeavouring to show its inconsistency. "It will seem absurd, and indeed the thing itself is very absurd; yet they believe it." The document deserves quotation at some length:
"For they suppose that the souls of men, in that very moment wherein they are parted from their bodies by death, are carried either to heaven and do there feel heavenly joy and possess all kinds of happiness which God has promised to His people; or to hell and are there tormented and excruciated with unquenchable fire. This they attribute to the mere souls separated from their bodies, even before the resurrection of the men themselves, that is to say while they are yet dead. But these things cannot happen to something which is not alive. That which does not live, does not feel. They neither enjoy pleasure nor endure pain.
"The argument of Christ (Luke 20:34) wherein he proves the future resurrection of the dead would be fallacious if before the resurrection they felt heavenly joy. For God would be their God although their body should never rise again.
"Likewise the reasoning of the apostle (I Cor.15:30-32) would be fallacious wherein he proves the resurrection by argument. Certainly this would be false, if the godly, presently after death, did in their souls enjoy celestial happiness, and the wicked feel torment.
"Furthermore, why should Peter defer the salvation of souls to the last day (1 Peter 1:5) and Paul the crown of righteousness to the day of judgement (2 Tim. 4 :8)? To what purpose should the judgement be appointed? How could it be said of the godly of the old covenant that they 'received not the promise' (Heb. 11:40) if the soul of every one presently after death, even without the body, felt celestial happiness?
"Is not living, dying, feeling, learning, acting, proper to the whole man, the compound of soul and body? Let the eye be shut, the soul will not see. The very nature of the thing itself refuteth it."
The last paragraph is illustrative of a persistent characteristic of the Brethren's exegesis of Scripture, that its words and concepts are in the generality of cases to be understood in a plain, straightforward sense, not in a highly mystical way. Theology for them was not abstruse and mystifying, but the common-sense unfolding of divine wisdom. God has revealed His purpose in a way amenable to man's rational comprehension, even though the ultimate infinities of things may be far beyond his grasp. "If Christians would shake off their drowsiness and prejudice", Stegman contended, "and set upon a diligent and impartial trial of all religious doctrine by Scripture and reason", they would assuredly become acquainted with the original Christian Gospel.
Persecution and Foreign Invasion
The period of freedom for the Brethren in Poland and Lithuania lasted until the second decade of the 17th century and in a restricted form until after the middle of the century. By this time some three hundred "ecclesias" existed in Poland and Lithuania. The Jesuits, struggling to thwart the protestant reformation and advance their own "counter-reformation", became increasingly influential in the affairs of the Polish state. Many of the priests had an implacable loathing of the Brethren's way of worship and life, and stirred up by every means hatred and hostility towards them. Several tirades, exhorting Roman Catholic peasants to rid their districts of this despicable sect, have survived. The slightest indiscretion on the part of any of the Brethren was seized upon to condemn all. In 1611, John Tyscoviski of Bielsko refused to swear in court by the triune God, and was alleged to have thrown down the crucifix offered to him in the dock. He was convicted of blasphemy, his tongue was pierced and his hands and feet cut off. He was then executed in Warsaw on November 16th of that year. Catherine Vogel, an attractive woman of considerable talent, was publicly mutilated in a savagely sadistic fashion in Krakow and finally roasted alive for the crime of "believing in the existence of one God". In 1638 some indiscreet and boisterous young students at the Rakow college not themselves members of the Brethren for the most part -- stoned a cross in the vicinity. The parents of the boys and the college authorities made a public apology and offered restitution. But this was unacceptable and the affair was exaggerated out of all proportion and enabled the Jesuits to force the final closure of the college.
The 1650's were a period of great turmoil in Poland. Armies of various factions roamed about the country living by pillage. At one time it was said that nearly two-thirds of a million soldiers -- Cossacks, Tartars and Poles -- were living off the land, while Austrians and Romanians raided in the south. The nation's economy crumbled and the Polish people were reduced to deep penury and distress. At the instigation of the Jesuits, the Cossacks, aided by many peasants, burned and looted everything they could lay their hands on belonging to the Brethren; many families were killed. In the midst of the turmoil the king of Sweden invaded and drove King Casimir of Poland from the country. He exacted a pledge of obedience from the Poles: this was given first by the Roman Catholics; the Reformed church followed suit and it was only under duress that the Brethren eventually acknowledged the king of Sweden as their temporal sovereign. Actually they did not wish to be embroiled in any way in the wars of religion which were plaguing Europe and only desired to be left in peace to worship according to their way. However, taking advantage of the Swedish king's absence on quarrels elsewhere, Casimir restored his fortunes and expelled the Swedish forces from Poland. The majority of the population readily abandoned their recent pledge and joined in the rebellion. The Brethren continued to take no active part in the political strife, but this was interpreted as loyalty to a foreign monarch, and severe persecution ensued. The Roman Catholic authorities, now fully in the ascendant, determined on nothing short of complete extermination or expulsion, and encouraged the Diet to extend no toleration whatever to the Brethren.
In 1658 the Polish Diet or Parliament passed a law of expulsion:
"The toleration granted to dissenters from the church does not legally extend to the unitarians whom they call anabaptists, this being a new heresy. Therefore all who within such a limited time will not embrace the Roman Catholic religion shall be banished out of Poland; allowing, however, two years to sell their estates, whether real or personal."
The brief freedom was ended. Months of anxiety followed, especially as the law was popularly imagined to allow anyone to sequester, loot or freely acquire the property of the Brethren.
By 1660 the position of many was desperate in the extreme, and Andrew Wissowaty made a courageous appeal at a religious
conference in Krakow. It was a brave act to attend the council at all, since it was a hornet's nest of bitter enemies, but to speak out there for a mitigation of the sentence laid upon his people was an extraordinary act of self-sacrifice. Eyewitnesses record the considerable impression made by the "splendour of his talents and the magnanimity of his spirit". One Roman Catholic priest remarked that if all the devils from hell had been there, they could not have maintained their religion more ably than this one minister had done. The governor of Krakow, who was a fair-minded individual, asked what then would have been the outcome if more of Wissowaty's calibre had been present and added that it was fortunate that some others he knew were not there. The priest replied that it was certainly a good thing they had not appeared, as he would have been hard pressed to get support for his case. As it was, even the friends of the Jesuits openly spoke of the conference as a defeat for them, and their chagrin led, not to mitigation of the sentence, but to the even more rigorous decree of July 20th, 1660.
A great migration began, as the Brethren scattered to Prussia, Silesia, Moravia, Russia. Four hundred moved south to Transylvania to join like-minded friends already there. A considerable number migrated to the Netherlands, a few even reached England. In this they were helped by members of the congregations founded through the influence of John Biddle, the colourful figure who is the subject of a later chapter.
Transylvanian Confession of Faith
Transylvania had been overrun by the Ottoman Turks in 1562 and subsequently owed allegiance to the Porte of Istanbul. It is a sad reflection on Christendom that these pious, deeply moral and dedicated Bible Christians found more peace and rest among the "heathen" Turks than among their fellow-Christians. It was in the lovely hills and attractive towns of the Transylvanian Alps that a number of communities of Brethren persisted longer than anywhere else in Europe, in fact until the nineteenth century, although in some significant respects there were changes in organisation and practice during that period. The following twelve-point confession of the Transylvanian churches (somewhat summarised) indicates, however, that many of the old ideals remained unimpaired:
1. In One Almighty God;
2. In Jesus Christ, Son of God by the virgin Mary;
3. In one Holy Spirit, the power of God;
4. In one holy Christian 'ecclesia';
5. That kings and magistrates are ordained of God;
6. In Holy Baptism in water: by it we are initiated into Christ, become an effective member of the church, and declare our profession in Christ and desire to amend our ways;
7. That the communion of the Supper is a remembrance of Christ;
8. The human race we believe to be 'under sin', but we can be justified by the grace of God. Through that grace we receive remission of sins;
9. Faith involves keeping the commandments of Christ;
10. We look for the glorious advent of our Saviour Christ;
11. We believe in a resurrection of the body, both of the just and the unjust;
12. We believe that the faithful will be granted to be with Christ and to sit down with him wherever his throne will be. There shall be eternal happiness and we shall be ever with the Lord."
The close parallel to the Apostles' Creed will be noticed, a deliberate characteristic of so many of the confessions of the Brethren. It was their constant hope that as this Creed was nominally acknowledged by the major churches, they would be granted recognition as loyal Christians instead of being considered, as was almost always the case, as worse than the heathen.
The work of the Transylvanian Brethren in and around Cluj and Alba-lulia, in education and craft skills became widely known in eastern Europe, though knowledge of this isolated community became virtually lost to scholars and even to remnants of the Brethren in western Europe until it had almost disappeared early in the 19th century. The nineteenth-century Unitarians (in the modern sense) "discovered" them and made contacts with them, but by this time Latin had ceased to be the "lingua Franca" of Europe and language difficulties made these contacts rather tenuous. How long this "Church in Transylvania confessing One God the Father" survived is somewhat uncertain.
In north-cast Germany, chiefly in the farming villages of Brandenburg, around Konigsberg in East Prussia, and far into Russia small groups of descendants (literal and spiritual) of exiled Brethren persisted into the 19th century, their way of life and principles still having a less prominent but quietly leavening influence.
All Books/Booklets, Editorials, and Articles are FREE and can be downloaded without permission.