Glenn Joseph Lea
Learn about people in history that have had significant influence on the course of events in Europe and Canada such as Michael Servetus, William Tyndale and John Ware. More topics will be added over time.


Michael Servetus and the Socinians
William Tyndale
John Ware
The Polish Brethren

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


Origins of the Polish Brethren

Antitrinitarianism developed in at least two areas: northern Italy in 1539 and Poland in 1546. Before considering the influence of reformers from Italy, we consider the origins of the Polish Brethren.

To say the Polish Brethren1 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.

By the mid 1550s a Reformed Church patterned after Calvin’s church in Geneva had developed in Poland, mostly in the Krakow area. According to noted Unitarian historian E. M. Wilbur, the Reformed Church was reforming further than Calvin wanted it to go . This included calling into question of orthodox Trinitarianism.

The origin of the Polish Brethren had supposedly been dated to the execution of a heretical noble woman, Katherine Weigel, on April 19, 1539.2 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?3 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 but nothing further came of this question.

In January 1556 the issue of the Trinity broke out into the open at the synod of Secemin4 which had gathered to consider certain Church reforms. A Peter Giezek presented his confession at the synod and his views were considered blasphemous and heretical - they were antitrinitarian. This became the first open incident of antitrinitarianism in Poland. It also initiated a long troublesome debate in the Church over the nature of the Godhead and this eventually led to a schism with liberal and Calvinist wings in the Polish reformed movement. The one side advocated Calvinism, which became known as the Polish Major Church. The other side, although not rejecting Calvinism outrightly, adopted antitrinitarianism5, which due to their smaller numbers became known as the Polish Minor Church.

Polish Brethren territory

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

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, however, can be found between Servetus and the Polish Brethren. The first involves a connection unexpectedly coming from Italy. These were the Protestant Italian Humanist exiles who had gathered in the Italian Churches at Geneva and at Zurich. The second and deeper link involves Lelio Francesco Maria Sozzini and his nephew Faustus Socinius. The execution of Servetus stirred the thinking of the Italian exiles and especially on Lelio’s thinking about the problems he saw in the orthodox view of the Trinity. He was to eventually influence his nephew Faustus and cause Faustus to probe deeper into these issues. He was to become the key advocate of the Polish Brethren in Poland and formulate for future generations their doctrinal positions.

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.6 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.4 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.5

A significant member of the liberal movement in which the Anabaptists circulated was Juan Valdes who, Wilbur writes,7 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”.8

Bernardino Ochino

Due to 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.9

Thinking better of it, he fled over the Alps to Calvin’s Geneva where he was warmly welcomed in the Italian Protestant Church.10 While in Geneva, 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.

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.

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.

Professor Matteo Gribaldi

After the death of Servetus11, 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

A work of 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. 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. When Gribaldi took up a teaching post in Tubingen, Germany, these Polish students followed him there.

In 1554, Gribaldi passed through to Geneva on the way to Tubingen and attended the Italian Protestant Church there. The issue of the Trinity broke out in the congregation. Gribaldi’s input into the debate12, 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 Christ13.

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 another link between Servetus and the Polish Brethren.

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.14

Giorgio Biandrata

Another Italian exile in Poland was the physician Dr. Giovanni Giorgio Biandrata. 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.

Giorgio_Biandrata

Giorgio Biandrata. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

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 physician15 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 (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 test16, he left Geneva going only as far as Zurich and the returned to Geneva, “hoping to save his business interests there17. 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.

Gribaldi’s estate became a hotbed of antitrinitarianism as Alciati, Gribaldi and Gentile18 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.19

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 was20. 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 Poland21.

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,22 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.

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Footnotes

  1. 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. 

  2. 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. 

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

  4. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 213.  2

  5. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 213.  2

  6. 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. 

  7. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 89. 

  8. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 89. 

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

  10. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 213. 

  11. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 216. 

  12. 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. 

  13. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 216. 

  14. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 223. 

  15. 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. 

  16. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 227. 

  17. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 228. 

  18. 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.” 

  19. 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. 

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

  21. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 315. 

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