Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072
Church School: 10:45 AM
“Egy Az Isten” (“God Is One”)
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 9, 2011
In the south of
In the town of Deva, high on a hill overlooking the valley of the Mures River, there are the crumbling ruins of a 16th century fortress, its roof now open to the sky. At ground level, back in former times, lay the dungeon, and you can still make out the walls of a small cell at the corner, still intact. The door to the cell is now locked, to keep out intruders and would-be vandals. But if you peer inside the stern metal grille at the entrance of the cell, you can see a rather impressive marble monument, inscribed with the name “David Ferenc”. And above the lintel of the door, the same name—“David Ferenc” is inscribed as well.
Farenc David—or Francis David, as he has come to be known to us in English—was imprisoned in this cell at Deva for six months; here he died in the year 1579, somewhere in his late sixties. He was buried, sources tell us, “where no one knoweth”, seemingly broken and downtrodden, defeated in the eyes of the world. Yet, he has left us all—not just Unitarian Universalism, but Western civilization in general—a precious spiritual legacy.
Even after Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the front door of All
Saints’ Church at
During the first half of the sixteenth century, a bitter struggled raged
between the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and the Sultan of Turkey. Both had
their eyes on control of the lands of central and eastern Europe. Central to
this struggle was control over the
So, between (around) 1515 and 1540, another bitter struggle raged within
this larger bitter struggle over who would rule over
In 1540, Princess Isabella gave birth to a son, named John Sigismund. (Sigismund was the name of her father, the King of Poland.) But her husband, King John Zapolya, was away at the time of his son’s birth, putting down a rebellion among his subjects in the south. Unfortunately, King John came down with a fever shortly after subduing the rebels, and never made it back to his capital at Buda. His son was only two weeks old at his father’s death.
Under terms of his agreement with King John, Archduke Ferdinand was
supposed to become the undisputed King of all
For almost twenty years, Isabella was able to play one side against the
other, and hang on as regent, in effect the ruler of the
Archduke Ferdinand was still holding on, however, and still had designs
on taking control of
King John decided that only if he could end all this internal wrangling once and for all, would it be possible for him to guarantee the survival of his kingdom—pressed as it was by the Turks on one side, and the Hapsburgs on the other.
So, in 1568, he called for an assembly (a “diet” as it was called) in the
Great Hall in the city of
“Imagine the scene [if you will]: The atmosphere is tense, full of suspicion and fear. Feelings were running high on both sides. The conditions of the debate had been agreed upon and judges chosen. The speakers would alternate on each side. And the debate, once it began, lasted ten days, beginning each morning at !” [Jan Knost]
The Unitarian representative in the debate was Francis David. A brilliant
scholar, David had been born in the Transylvanian city of
At Torda, before the king and other learned theologians, and before the mass of people all assembled, David argued the Unitarian perspective rigorously, point by point. Then, he went a step further: The question was even greater, he said, than which particular religious perspective was correct. On that, reasoned men could disagree. Even more important, David declared, was how people were to relate to one another, and how the kingdom was to be governed, religiously speaking. Only a genuine spirit of religious toleration—an acceptance of different perspectives, within the entire kingdom—could guarantee the furtherance of stability. Without toleration, Francis David said, even if the King himself declared his fealty to one or another chosen faith—even to Unitarianism—then religious discord would continue to rage, unabated.
To grasp just how revolutionary the words of Francis David were, we have to remember the context of the times in which he lived: Religious wars raging throughout Europe; people still being burned at the stake, or otherwise executed, for their beliefs—and by Protestant and Catholic authorities alike; Islam making deep forays onto the European continent, twice reaching the very gates of the imperial capital of Vienna. His words are even more striking when we realize that even today, almost 440 years later—such principles as religious toleration and freedom of conscience are hardly universally accepted in our world today!
But King John Sigismund agreed with Francis David. There had already been liberal influences upon the king: his mother, Isabella, for one, who had already granted a large decree of toleration within her kingdom, in order to gain acceptance of her alliance with the Sultan. The king’s court physician, Giorgio Biandratta, was a devoted rationalist, a man of the Enlightenment, and a close cohort of Servetus. So, the words of Francis David fell upon fertile soil.
The king named David his court preacher. He embraced wholeheartedly the ideas of Unitarianism (thereby becoming the first, and only, Unitarian king in European history). He went even further. Following the Diet at Torda, the king issued his royal edict:
“His Royal Majesty, our Lord… reaffirms that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve…
For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearings is by the word of God.””
The three “received” (or official) faiths of the kingdom—Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist—were all granted royal protection, as was Unitarianism, which was also declared a “received” faith. Practitioners of other religions—Orthodox, Jews, even Muslims—were guaranteed toleration and freedom of conscience within the Kingdom of Transylvania as well.
All seemed destined to dwell happily ever after in religious harmony
under good King John in the peaceable
History is never that easy.
The Edict of Torda unleashed a reaction among the more conservative religious forces of the area. There were further assassination attempts against King John Sigismund. Francis David himself now developed enemies in high places.
In 1570, John Sigismund gave up all claim to the
David, of course, was dismissed as court preacher. Catholicism was
reestablished as the official religion of the land. The Edict of Torda was
annulled, and religious toleration repealed. It was back to religious business
as usual in
But Francis David would not concede defeat. He took to the road, preaching Unitarianism across the land. The government ordered him to be silent, and even his friends advised him to acquiesce, and go along with the new status quo. But Francis David would not. Instead, his ideas became even more and more radical: Jesus was not a god, he declared; so it was sheer nonsense to pray to Jesus, he said. The doctrine of predestination was nonsense as well, he scoffed; the concept of hell was a figment of deranged imagination.
But while his mind was still keen, and his spirit eager for a renewed debate, his body was failing him. He developed a serious illness, and soon could barely walk. He had to be carried from place to place, and lifted out of his chair, whenever he rose to speak. But continue to speak he did.
Finally, the authorities would take it no longer. Ferenc David was summoned to stand trial, charged with the heinous crime of “religious innovation”.
That he would be found guilty was a foregone conclusion, nor did David
deny that he was an “innovator” and that he had questioned fundamental doctrines
of traditional Christian faith. There were cries from more extreme quarters for his execution. But his judges
were political realists, who knew that this brilliant preacher still had much
support among the people of
Instead, they sentenced Farenc to life in prison for his heresey. They knew that the natural course of things would not drag that sentence out for very long. Francis David was locked in a dark, damp cell in the ancient fortress at Deva. There, the authorities hoped, he would languish, forgotten.
He was sentenced in June; he died that November. His burial place remains a mystery.
But they survived—tougher, if not larger, because of the ideal.
As the Transylvanian Unitarian poet and minister Francis Balazs wrote, early in the twentieth century:
I want everyone to know
that I did not die here.
My village’s moods and problems
did not drown me.
I sowed myself only into
this tiny place.
I hid myself all over here
under the clod.
Let me be seen thus:
I will sprout in these fields
in the spring.
There will be blossoms here
which will bear good fruit.