450 Years of Religious Freedom

a sermon by Rev. Jill Cowie


Religious freedom is at the heart of Unitarian Universalism. It has deep roots in our history, connecting us to Unitarian King John Sigismund and to the Unitarianism of 16th century Transylvania (now part of Romania). This Sunday’s sermon celebrates our connection with our partner church and their minister Istvan Berei as well as offers up a bit of our history, a trail of connection to explores the 21st century relevance of the edict of Torda issued in 1568, that says “no one shall be reviled… or threatened” because of their religion. A Transylvania lunch will follow the service.

Reading 1:Excerpts from “The Difference Between Holy and Nice” by Rev. Ana Levy- Lyons

Many liberals today have taken the concern for rights, liberty, and individualism to the extreme. I’m thinking particularly of modern liberal movements, including Reform Judaism, American Buddhism, yoga communities, Unitarian Universalism, and unaffiliated spiritual progressives. Often these movements have come to fetishize freedom as an end in itself- the end in itself- that trumps all other values. I was particularly struck in this regard by a recent discussion with a group of Unitarian Universalists. I was leading an exercise in which I had asked them to imagine a tight-knit community of “really religious, really observant Unitarian Universalists.” I asked them to envision what foods members of this hypothetical community would eat, what they would wear, how they would raise their children, and how they would spend their time and money. What practices would be required? What would be prohibited? Category by category, the response was the same: nothing would be required, nothing prohibited. I challenged them on this point. No foods would be prohibited? Not even foods grown by farmworkers for slave wages? …Clearly, to religious liberals, what people ultimately do with their freedom of choice is of less concern than that they have this freedom. Yes, they value community and social justice and caring for the earth, but freedom is a higher value still.

Reading 2: Excerpts of Psalm 137

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
demanded from us songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.

The Sermon

“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” As I watch the latest partisan attack on one more pillar of our democracy, our Department of Justice, I fear that the ideals of democracy once so central to our lives are being exiled. And as I watch the Congress, driven by opportunism, pragmatism, or fear, forget that they used to think certain things were unacceptable, I too want to hang up my harp and weep. How do we sing the lord’s song, or love’s song, or the song of that which is most holy written upon each of our hearts in this increasingly strange land? How do we tap into the all abiding love that is deeper than division and more powerful than evil to reclaim a democracy from the grip of this increasingly dehumanizing autocracy?

I raise these questions, today, on the 400th anniversary of the Unitarian Edict of Torda, the first legal declaration of religious tolerance in Europe, because of what it teaches us about our religious inheritance and because despite this Edict, Transylvanian Unitarians faced cruel and almost continuous oppression from religious and political autocracies for more than 250 years. They learned to sing the lord’s song during times of exile and maybe remembering their story will give us strength to sing in this strange land. The ancient ones knew the importance of remembering. If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you Jerusalem my highest joy. Celebrating the Edict of Torda, is to remember the powerful resistance of Transylvanian Unitarians, a resistance that is joyfully our spiritual DNA.

I know most of you know the story, but it’s worth the retelling. During the 16th century Unitarianism grew up in the boundary lands in the outreaches of Eastern Europe, far from the power centers of Luther’s Germany and Calvin’s Geneva. There, the radical reformation was free to take on its most progressive forms, and there those declared heretics by Catholic or Protestant state backed powers found refuge. Theologians such as Michael Servetus rejected the Christian doctrines of the Trinity because they were offensive to Jews and Muslims and the interfaith communities that populated the land, a people who considered themselves at their best one extended family, loyal to one God. Servetus was exiled from Spain by the Inquisition and he traveled through Eastern Europe publishing his work, even sending a manuscript to John Calvin who then had him executed in 1553. But his work lived on in Giorgio Biandrata, a court physician in Transylvania, then the Eastern part of Hungary, who cultivated the anti-trinitarianism of Francis David, the court’s Bishop who we see in the picture in our program. Francis David, a brilliant orator, stands before the diet, or court to argue on behalf of religious tolerance and for allowing four state approved religions, Unitarianism, Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism to co-exist peacefully. Back then these debates were the equivalent of sport events, commanding attention much like today’s Super Bowl. The king is sitting at the table, and Giorgio in the back with his arms folded. While David speaks, with his arms up stretched, a single ray of sunlight shines directly on his head, implying that God is directly implanting the principle of tolerance in David’s brain. “This individually driven, immaculate conception theory” says Historian Susan Richie “ignores a larger context that made the edict possible.” Insert into the story she says, Queen Isabella, who grew up in the liberal Polish royal court and was a dedicated humanist. It was she who had issued more limited declarations of tolerance while ruling in the place of her underage son. Insert too, the reality that the Edict was issued in a country under the ultimate political rule of religiously tolerant Ottoman Muslims whose protection delayed the arrival of the counter reformation, making it safe for multi- religious interchange to deepen and mature. Relationships evident in their shared theology and in the way ordinary citizens lived. Unitarian understanding on the Unity of God aligns with the Quran and passages from the Edict of Torda are traceable Islamic texts. Today it is common to see Muslim prayer rugs in Unitarian churches.

Jewish interchange was mutual as well. Michael Servetus was deeply knowledgeable of the Hebrew Bible, considering it more divinely inspired than the New Testament. Unitarian churches became places where Jews could worship safely and when the Jewish religion was legalized in Hungary in 1867, some Unitarian churches became explicitly Jewish. Historian Susan Richie says many considered this day to day interchange, this sense of unity essential to the presence of God. A sense of unity that Richie suggests makes multi-religious interchange, not anti-creedal rebelliousness the true heart of Unitarian identity.1

Now that we have the full back drop of the story, let us return to the Diet of Torda. Knowing the context makes what happens next more understandable and more tragic. Shortly after the Edict of Torda, King Sigismund was killed while hunting. After his death a Catholic ruler who was not quite so appreciative of the virtues of freedom or tolerance dismantled the Unitarian presses, universities, and dismissed Unitarian court advisers. The new ruler enacted a law that said that henceforth there will be no more innovation in religion.

This is when the story becomes tragic. Remember Giorgio Biandrata, the court physician who studied with Michael Servetus and cultivated Francis David’s own anti- trinitarianism? As the ruler became more and more hostile towards Unitarianism, Giorgio worried about the church’s survival. But Francis David was not willing to sacrifice the relationships so central to his experience of God. He was not concerned at all about the codification of abstract terminology regarding Jesus’ substance or essence. His concern was the impact that the state tyranny done in the name trinitarianism was having on his Muslim and Jewish brethren. He kept insisting on praying not to Jesus, but to the Father who is one. Concerned for the church, Giorgio finally betrayed his old friend to the state. Francis David was convicted of the crime of theological innovation and died in prison shortly thereafter.

Before his death, Francis wrote on the walls of his cell: “neither the swords of popes, nor the cross, nor the image of death-nothing will halt the march of truth. I wrote what I felt and that is what I preached with a trusting spirit. I am convinced that after my destruction the teachings of false prophets will collapse.” What followed was 250 years of oppression, first by Catholics, then by Calvinists then by Catholics again. The number of Unitarian churches dwindled from over 600 to fewer than 100. All this happened in Hungary before the end of the 18th century. In the 19th century the few that remained connected with Unitarians in Britain and here, with William Ellery Channing and David Thoreau who provided them with money to pay teachers and ministers. In what can be seen as a “Horton Hears A Who” moment the Romanian Hungarians wrote a letter to a British consulate in Latin in the what then was considered a universal language asking for help. Up until then, Britain and U.S. Unitarians had no clue that their Eastern European religious cousins existed.2 Things were beginning to look up, that is until WWI. After the war, Romania got Transylvania, the eastern portion of Hungary, as a war prize. Hungarians have been an oppressed minority in Romania ever since. During WWII both Hungary and Romania were occupied by the Germans and the Unitarian ties with Britain and the US brought them suspicion. After the war, under communism the oppression continued until the Ceausescu regime finally collapsed in 1989, just before the village of Magyarandrasfalva, the home of our partner church in Romania was slated for destruction.3 For the village, the collapse of communism felt like a miracle, and a realization of Francis David’s prophecy as freedom and friendship once again blossomed in the land, including the friendship with us. A friendship we hold every time we lift a hymnal with the covers they made, or when I wear this stole, a gift from the partner church of the first congregation I served. I am so glad to be in relationship with our Transylvania cousins, again.

Now, that the story has been told, what does it teach us about how to sing the lord’s in a foreign land? Ideas? For me the story turns upon the moment Giorgio and Francis David interpret freedom differently. Giorgio, because of fear and pragmatism, does something that he once considered incomprehensible, he betrayed his friend, on behalf of the safety of his church.4 Francis David, opts to innovate, to alter the status quo on behalf of freedom for another. This is not to demonize Giorgio, I understand his concern for the church. But I wonder if it was David’s lived reality of the immanence of God in his relationship with Muslim and Jews that gave him the strength to choose differently? A reality experienced by the inter-religious relationships in Unitarian movements today in the Khasi Hills of India, in the Philippines, and in Uganda and Peru, movements seeking to alter the world towards justice.5

1. [Susan Richie, Children of the Same God ch 1 and 2]

2. [Rev. Pamela Barz, Research, Harvard Library 1989]

3. [Rev Wendy Bell, 2007 sermon to HUUC]

4. [Dan McKanan A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism, p 22]

5. [Richie, ch 2]