Antitrinitarians of the Reformation - From Michael Servetus to the Socinians

The Polish Brethren

"Why do we pray to three distinct beings?"_ - Jan Trzycieski

The Beginnings

The Polish Brethren were a radical Christian movement that developed during Poland’s era of religious toleration which was from about the mid-sixteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries.

The beginnings of the Polish Brethren had supposedly been dated to the execution of a heretical noble woman, Katherine Weigel, on April 19, 1539.1 However, the noted Unitarian historian E. M. Wilbur dates the beginnings of the Polish Brethren to 1546 at a chance discussion during a dinner meeting in Krakow, Poland. Guests at the home of a pupil of Erasmus, Jan Trzycieski, perused the host’s books to pass the time while awaiting the call for the meal. One guest, Spiritus, a Dutchman, after reading a prayer book wondered why some prayers were “addressed to God the Father, some to God the Son, and some to God the Holy Spirit”. He asked, “Why do we pray to three distinct beings?2

The question was not answered satisfactorily to Spiritus and to others there. This left some feeling a bit uneasy about what they had been taught about the nature of God. In the following months nothing further came of this question. It would be some time before these doubts would break out into open discussion again. When they did, a process began that culminated in the publishing of a book called The Racovian Catechism, one of the most radical of all documents ever to emerge out of the doctrinal free-for-all which characterized the Reformation era. It was called Racovian because it was written at the main center of the Polish Brethren which was in Raków, Poland

Polish Brethren territory

Location of Polish Brethren in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569–1648). Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Within three years of Servetus presenting to the public a radical reinterpretation of the Godhead in the Erroribus, this reinterpretation made its way across Europe and eventually to Poland via certain Italian humanists who, like Servetus, questioned the traditional understanding of the Trinity.

To say the Polish Brethren are an obscure sixteenth century religious movement is a bit of an understatement. But so was Michael Servetus until Calvin forced him onto the pages of history. Yet, finding a connection between Servetus and the Polish Brethren is a bit of a detective story. First, let’s try to tease out the origins of the Polish Brethren.

They were not Arians

Socinian was the name given to the Christian movement called the Polish Brethren but they themselves didn’t use that term. It was not applied to the movement until the seventeenth century in England. They called themselves the Polish Brethren or just simply Brethren.

The term Arianism has been wrongfully applied to the Polish Brethren as they were not in any way Arian, except that they did not adhere to mainstream understanding of the Godhead. That they were called Arian indicates either the labelers cared not for the subtleties of doctrine or they hoped by simplification and obfuscation to wrongfully connect them to an ancient heresy. Then the Church authorities could stir up opposition from orthodox Christians and eventually cause the secular authorities to eradicate them.

Servetus and the Polish Brethren

Both Servetus and the Polish Brethren were antitrinitarians. Antitrinitarianism basically means having an understanding of the nature and relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit - the three protagonists (Godhead) in the Christian Bible – that doesn’t conform to mainstream understandings of the Godhead. To be clear, no set definition of non-mainstream formulations of the Godhead exist. Servetus’ conception of the Godhead differed significantly from the antitrinitarianism of the Socinians and so the distinctions between these two systems must be carefully pointed out. Both Michael Servetus and the Polish Brethren had different social, political and intellectual backgrounds. This perhaps helps to explain, in part, their doctrinal dissimilarity. The very texture of Servetian thought contrasts so sharply with that of the Polish Brethren that in some senses it is hard to see how one has affected the other.

Two indirect links can be found between Servetus and the Polish Brethren. The first involves a connection unexpectedly coming from Italy, not from France, Germany, Spain, or even Poland. The bridge between Servetus and the Polish Brethren are the Italian Humanist Protestants who gathered in the Italian Churches at Geneva and at Zurich.

The second link is related to the first, which involves the uncle of Fausto Sozzini, Lelio Francesco Maria Sozzini, better known as Laelius Socinus. The execution of Servetus stirred Lelio’s mind on the problems he saw in the orthodox view of the Trinity. He was to influence his nephew Faustus and cause Faustus to probe deeper into these issues.

Through these Italian exiles Servetian thought made its way to Poland and found fertile ground amongst the Trinitarian doubters of the newly formed Reformed Church of Poland of which the Polish Brethren were broadly a part.3

Without getting lost in the woods of religious distinctions amongst Protestantism in Poland, once antitrinitarianism found a secure foothold in the Polish Reformed Church it was only a matter of time before the Calvinist reformers parted from the antitrinitarians, especially the Polish Brethren. The former group retained allegiance to Calvin and became known as the Polish Major Church, because they were the larger group. The group advocating antitrinitarian formulations for the Godhead, although retaining many Calvinist teachings, became known as the Polish Minor Church (because they were the smaller of the two). These adherents in this smaller group came to call themselves the Polish Brethren.

The Polish Brethren themselves traced their point of origin to a Dutchman who posed a question about the Godhead during an evening tea. Yet their intellectual underpinnings derived from the Italian exiles who were influenced by Servetus. Michael Servetus thus becomes the father of their doctrinal positions through Faustus Socinius and the Italian exiles. In this way Servetian and Socinian thought entered an existing distinct Polish Church.

Freedom to worship

This radical Christian movement lasted in Poland until July 20, 1658 when the Polish government forced the Polish Brethren into exile because they would not join in agreement with other Protestant churches. They fled, as it seems most dissenting Christians had to do during those times, to areas such as the Ducal of Prussia (East Prussia), the Netherlands and also to the Principality of Transylvania. The symbolic end to the Polish Brethren as part of Polish society came when Raków, the epicenter of Polish Brethren, lost its main Church to the wrecking hammer of the workmen of Bishop Zadzil. In its place rose a Catholic Church signifying rather concretely that Socinianism Protestantism was not to be tolerated in Catholic Poland.4

For a brief one hundred years the Polish Brethren flourished in Poland but eventually, like Servetus, proved too radical for either the Catholics or the Protestants. And like Servetus, the Polish Brethren suffered at the hands of both. In their homeland they were known as the Polish Brethren. In England and elsewhere they became known as the Socinians and their doctrines Socinianism. The term Socinian derives from the Italian Fausto Sozzini, otherwise known as Faustus Socinus, who was to become the intellectual force behind this movement. When later they came to the New World they would become known as Unitarians.

Let’s look at the connection between the Italian Humanists and the Polish Brethren in more detail.

The Italian Humanists

The initial link between Servetus and the Socinians were, according to Wilbur, antitrinitarian elements in the Italian Anabaptists living in northern Italy.5 When Zwingli exiled the Anabaptists from the canton of Zurich some went to northern Italy and settled amongst humanist circles. Not all these Anabaptists had antitrinitarian leanings but amongst them were those who were influenced by Servetus’ criticisms of the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Christ.6 While in Italy these antitrinitarians influenced some of the Italian Humanists with Servetian thought. Writing about these Italian converts, Wilbur says that,

They were all Italian Humanists who under the influence of the early Reformation had abandoned the dogmas of the Roman Church, and who, especially in the north of Italy where the influence of Servetus was wide-spread, proceeded, independently of the guidance of Luther and Calvin, to think out for themselves a liberal biblical theology.7

Wilbur conjecturing on the spread of Servetianism does not give evidence that they actually read Servetus. However, there is a high probability that these exiles were aware of Servetus’ criticism as they were themselves critics of the Reformers.

A significant member of the liberal movement in which the Anabaptists circulated was Juan Valdes who, Wilbur writes,8 was the leading Protestant propagandist amongst the Italians. In Naples he gathered about him many liberal thinkers, the most significant of whom for this history was the friar Bernardino Ochino,

who has also been reckoned as perhaps the most influential propagator of the Protestant doctrine in Italy”.9

Bernardino Ochino

Because of the Inquisition in Italy many liberal thinkers headed north and settled in the Reformed lands, especially Geneva. Once in sufficient numbers in Geneva, these religious refugees established the Italian Protestant Church. Of the Italians who left for safer lands to the north one of the most significant was Bernardo Ochino of Siena. He had the distinction of being probably the first to be summoned to the Italian Inquisition in Rome for his alleged Lutheran views.10

Thinking better of it, he fled over the Alps to Calvin’s Geneva where he was warmly welcomed in the Italian Protestant Church.11 Later Ochino was given a post as preacher to an Italian Protestant church in Augsburg but had to later flee due to Catholic rule over the city. He found a welcome home in England under King Edward Vi but yet again he had to take to the road to flee from Edward’s successor Queen Mary. He returned to Switzerland but this time he went to Zurich where he became the preacher to the Italian exiles with the assistance of Leilo Sozzini and others.

While he was a refugee in Geneva and elsewhere, he did not publicly say anything which would have implicated him with antitrinitarianism. But later when the Servetian affair broke out in 1553 he publicly expressed sympathies that were clearly pro-Servetian.

Bernardino Ochino

Bernardino Ochino. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

While in Zurich, Ochino wrote against the Trinity and other topics and it seems quite reasonable to conclude that Leilo Sozzini influenced him on that matter. This resulted in banishment and exile once more but this time Ochino made his way to Poland, already well known as the most tolerant kingdom in Europe. Here he joined with other dissidents within the Polish Brethren. In a few years he would have to flee once more, but succumbing to exhaustion and the plague he died in Moravia a broken and penniless man. His children would also suffer, three of whom would die of the plague.

His importance to this history is that he was a high profile pro-Servetian reformer leading an Italian Protestant congregation in Switzerland who was influenced by antitrinitarians such as Leilo Sozzini. He demonstrates how Servetus directly and indirectly influenced many antitrinitarians in Geneva and Zurich and especially in Poland amongst the Polish Brethren.

Professor Matteo Gribaldi

After the death of Servetus, Wilbur writes12 that Servetian thinking was “smoldering” in the Italian Protestant Church in Zurich during the time of Ochino’s leadership and also immediately after it. Meanwhile back in Italy, the writings of Servetus were gaining traction amongst reform minded Christians, notably in Padau. A few years earlier in 1550 an Italian legal scholar by the name of Matteo Gribaldi obtained a copy of Servetus’ Erroribus. He didn’t entirely agree with all that Servetus wrote but shifted his opinion away from Orthodoxy to a more antitrinitarian approach.

Mattheus Gribaldi

Mattheus Gribaldi. Image courtesy of Internet Archive

Professor Matteo Gribaldi had an estate in Farges, France which was nearby Geneva. in 1553 he spent some time on his estate visiting Geneva occasionally. During this time Servetus was undergoing his trial and ultimate execution. Gribaldi had gone to Geneva to see for himself the trial. He was deeply disturbed by the whole proceedings. He disagreed with Calvin that anyone should be punished for their beliefs, and by the way, Servetus wasn’t necessarily wrong about his beliefs. He eventually left Switzerland before Servetus was executed.

Returning to Padua through Switzerland he visited various congregations along the way and tried to persuade them of toleration towards dissenters. He argued that anyone shouldn’t be persecuted for their beliefs. Back in Italy, he continued to promote his new-found positions based on the writings of Servetus. He also hosted Lelio Sozzini who had returned to Italy. At the university where he taught he convinced a number of Polish students to adopt an antitrinitarian position. They went with Gribaldi when he took up a teaching post in Tubingen, Germany.

In 1554, Gribaldi passed through to Geneva on the way to Tubingen and attended the Italian Protestant Church there. By coincidence the issue of the Trinity broke out in the congregation. Gribaldi’s input into the debate13, which was misunderstood as Tritheism, gave support to the antitrinitarian viewpoint. Finally, the issue was inconclusively settled and Gribaldi left Geneva but not before Calvin tried to bring him before Genevan justice. But the city council allowed him to leave as he was not under the jurisdiction of Genevan law. Before leaving he was given a copy of Servetus’ Two Treatises and its effect on him was that “without which he afterwards declared that he should never have known Christ14.

Trouble continued to follow him, unfortunately. An assassination attempt was made on his life, he lost his teaching position in Tubingen, his estate in France was confiscated and he was constantly under suspicion for holding “pernicious” views. He petitioned to have his estate reinstated to him which was granted to him on certain conditions. In 1563 the plague took his life and he could cause no more trouble for Calvin and the Catholics. But he had convinced a number of Polish protestants of antitrinitarianism based on the work of Michael Servetus. These Polish antitrinitarians returned to Poland bringing with them the teachings of Servetus. There they joined the dissenting community of the Polish Minor Church persuading many of the Polish Brethren of Servetian ideas. These Poles who taught the ideas of Servetus by Professor Matteo Gribaldi were to become the key link between Servetus and the Polish Brethren.

Giorgio Biandrata

Gribaldi’s antitrinitarianism was not entirely Servetian nor was it the later formulation made by the Polish Brethren known as Socinianism. But it was his views which Wilbur considers one of the main “bridge(s) between Servetus and the beginnings of what was soon to develop into the Socinian movement in Poland.15 As we have just seen, Poles from Italy brought a modified Servetian thought with them from Italy. Yet, the key bridge was the Italian physician Dr. Giovanni Giorgio Biandrata. Because of his renown as an expert in woman’s diseases he was asked to serve at the court of the Polish King as personal physician to the Queen of Poland, Queen Bona. Significantly, he had also spent time in Transylvania performing similar medical duties. Eventually Biandrata returned to Pavia but came under suspicion for his Protestant sympathies.


Giorgio Biandrata. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

In 1556 Giorgio Biadrata fled the Inquisition with other like-minded Italians and came to Geneva and joined the Italian Congregation. The execution of Servetus was still on the minds of the Reformers there and eventually began to influence the thinking of Biandrata. It seems the fallout from Calvin’s execution of Servetus was to make more people consider Servetian thinking on the nature of the Godhead and other related matters rather than snuff it out.

While in Geneva Biandrata became a leader in the Italian Church. He came under the influence of Professor Matteo Gribaldi and began asking questions about the divinity of Christ to whomever would hear, even to Calvin. This was too much for Calvin. Biandrata wisely left for Poland in 1558. but this time he brought Lailius Socinus with him and introducing the Socinian family to the Polish Brethren.

After attempting to bring a sense of tolerance for a range of Protestant beliefs in the Polish Protestants, which was only somewhat successful, Biandrata moved to Translyvania where he became court physician16 to the King of Transylvania. There he influenced the court preacher and former Bishop Ferenc Dávid. Biandrata owned a rare copy of Servetus’ Christianismi Restitutio, which in English is The Restoration of Christianity. With this treatise Biadrata successfully convinced Dávid of a form of antitrinitarianism and of the importance of religious tolerance. Eventually, this led to the The Act of Religious Freedom and Conscience by King John Sigismund of Transylvania, the first such declaration in the West.

With Biandrata, antitrinitarianism established itself amongst the Polish Brethren and would be a step towards the more “mature thinking” amongst the Polish Brethren called Socinianism.

Alciati, Gentile and Stancaro

Other Italians also joined the trek to Poland, including a wealthy nobleman of Piedmont with an impressive sounding name - Dr. Giovanni Paolo Alciati della Motta. Like Biandrata, Alciati was a physician and a Calvinist who embraced antitrinitarianism. In 1546 he moved to Geneva joining the Italian Congregation. And like Gribaldi, he objected to the trial and execution of Servetus. Falling foul of Calvin’s confession test17, he left Geneva going only as far as Zurich and the returned to Geneva, “hoping to save his business interests there”.18 However, unable to do so, Alciati left for Poland joining Biandrata and other Italian exiles. This included Giovanni Valentino Gentile who at first did not go to Poland but to Gribaldi who was now living with Alciati at his estate near Geneva.

This estate became a hotbed of antitrinitarianism as Alciati, Gribaldi and Gentile19 discussed and shared their views. Eventually both Gentile and Alciati made their way to Poland at Biandrata’s invitation. Unfortunately for Gentile, he was forced to leave Poland as a heretic and eventually experienced the same fate as Servetus at the hands of Beza at Bern.20

Gentile’s and Alciati’s main contributed to the Polish Brethren was in making a leading antitrinitarian in Poland, Francesco Stancaro more “heretical” than he was.21 Stancaro was originally a Catholic priest but later embraced antitrinitarianism. His oratorial skills, scholarship and knowledge of Hebrew allowed him to become a Professor of Hebrew. It also allowed him to become very influential in the Protestant reform circles in Poland, including the aristocracy. He “was one of the most successful people who had worked to establish the Reformed faith in Poland.22

Due do Alciata’s influence Stancaro’s antitrinitarianism shifted further away from the trinitarian formulation towards a more unitarian construction. Stancaro, also an Italian exile,23 constantly stirred up the exegetical pot in antitrinitarian circles by repeatedly bringing up doctrinal innovations until Faustus Socinus arrived to settle the trinitarian question.

In short, Gentile’s views were a stage on the way to Socinianism. He caused thinking in Polish antitrinitarian circles to shift further away from Orthodox trinitarianism and from their own indigenous antitrinitarianism and towards Servetian antitrinitarianism until the arrival of Faustus Socinius.

Continue to next section


  1. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 283. She was not explicitly an antitrinitarian nor were her charges were that. Finding the Beginning of such a movement as Socinianism is fraught with difficulties as is evidenced by the rival “beginnings” posited. This paper follows Wilbur’s judgment for lack of an evidence to the contrary. 

  2. Wilbur, E.M., Unitarianism. Pg. 284. 

  3. Freidman distinguishes early and later Servetian thought as represented by The Errors and by The Restitution of Christianity respectively. See Friedman, Michael Servetus, esp. pg. 14. 

  4. Wilbur, E.M., Pg. 455. This Catholic Church has survived to this day symbolizing how effective the Society of Jesus was in destroying the Socinians in Poland. 

  5. See chapters 6 and 7 of Wilbur’s Unitarianism. Wilbur writes, “It was among these northern Italian Anabaptists that a definite formulation of Unitarian doctrine was first adopted for purposes of propaganda; and this is apparently to be traced to the two books on the Trinity which Servetus had published in 1531-31.” Pg. 79. 

  6. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 213. 

  7. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 213. 

  8. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 89. 

  9. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 89. 

  10. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 96. He had criticized ecclesiastical tyranny. 

  11. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 213. 

  12. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 216. 

  13. Gribaldi’s views on the Godhead are as follows: “Father, Son and Holy Spirit are really three distinct beings, each of them very God. The Father is self-existent, a sort of supreme being like Jove, chief of the Gods; while the Son and the Holy Spirit are derived from him, and subordinate. Taken concretely, the persons are distinct; taken abstractly, they are one and the same divinity, as manifestations of one power and wisdom. Thus taken, the mind easily understands their unity; but the usual notions of a triune God is an incomprehensible scholastic dream.” Wilbur, Unitarians, Pg. 222. 

  14. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 216. 

  15. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 223. 

  16. Servetus was also a medical doctor. Is there a connection between medicine and antitrinitarian formulations? Is there a mindset that favors such a view? Is it the focus on reason, on the human body and its nature that brings these medical students to antitrinitarian views? Correlation does not prove causation, but the thought is intriguing. 

  17. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 227. 

  18. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 228. 

  19. Gentiles view on the Trinity was influenced by Gribaldi. It was as follows: “Aside from the usual objections to the doctrine of the Trinity, its want of clear support from Scripture, and the unscriptural terms used to explain it, and the further objection (derived from Servetus) to the communicatio idiomatiom as an explanation of the union of the two natures in Christ, he held that only the father is self-existent, while the Son and the Holy Spirit are derived from him and subordinate. In the Godhead he asserted the existence of three distinct eternal spirits, equally divine, yet differing in rank, dignity and character; while (again like Servetus) he condemned Calvin’s view of the Trinity as one that led to a Quaternity.” 

  20. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 236. Wilbur states this view is Tritheism, a middle ground between the Sabellianism of Servetus and the Arianism of the Poles although it is questionable whether Servetus was a Sabellianist and the Poles were Arian. 

  21. The King of Poland issued a decree demanding all foreigners suspected of heresy to leave. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 234. 

  22. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 315. 

  23. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pp. 103, 297-301, 312.