Antitrinitarians of the Reformation - From Michael Servetus to the Socinians

Faustus Socinus and Socinianism

"He was not insensibly warped by traditional methods of thought, but approached the Bible text with an unbiased mind."" - Wilbur

Laelius Socinus

To summarize what has been discussed so far, a group of Italian Protestants influenced by the writings of Servetus became uneasy living in Geneva fearing they too might get caught up in the reach of Genevan authorities. With the execution of Servetus, several decided to leave Geneva and find a safer home in the tolerant lands of Poland, ultimately ending up in the Raków area. They would join an existing group of dissenters known as the Polish Brethren.

One such Italian was Laelius Socinus1 (Lelio Sozzini) who like Gribaldi had caused problems for Calvin with antitrinitarianism. Laelius Socinus was from Sienna in Italy, born of well-known parentage and trained to be a lawyer. For uncertain reasons he left Italy and settled in Zurich in 1547, several years before Servetus’ death. When Servetus was burned at the stake, Laelius Socinus was disturbed by the Spaniard’s death and in collaboration with the French theologian Sebastian Castellio wrote a work against the execution2 - De haereticis, an sint persequendi or in English Should Heretics be Persecuted?

Lelio Sozzini

Laelius Socinus (Lelio Sozzini). Image courtesy of Wikipedia

In 1549 Socinus corresponded with Calvin on doctrinal matters3 and from then on Calvin regarded Socinus with some suspicion. With the death of Servetus, Laelius Socinus became much more of an antitrinitarian, although guardedly so. He composed a confession of faith in July 15554 which although not clearly antitrinitarian was not Trinitarian. Under pressure, Laelius Socinus was forced to refrain from expressing his views and in fact never did thereafter. He went back to Italy to his family estate to obtain some of his assets. He returned to the Swiss cantons and kept a low profile until his death in Zurich. When Laelius died, his young nephew Faustus Socinius gained possession of his books and manuscripts and his connections in Poland.

Laelius Socinus made two contributions to this history. The first was a social link. Through Laelius Socinus, his newphew Faustus Socinus was welcomed amongst the Polish Reformed Church as a bona fide Italian Reformer. This in turn resulted in the influence of Faustus’ ideas on the course of antitrinitarianism in Poland.

The second contribution, an intellectual one, came after Laelius died. Among the books Faustus Socinius inherited from his uncle was Servetus’ Erroribus and Lalius’ own writings on antitrinitarianism. It should be noted that although Faustus gained possession of Lalius’ works, it is uncertain to what extent the two men actually discussed antitrinitarianism while Lalius was in Italy. Whatever influence Lalius had on his nephew it must primarily be through his writings.

Faustus Socinus’ connection to Servetus then was through the influence the Spaniard had on Lalius. Certainly, Lalius sympathized with Servetus, at least with his right to teach his views. Whether Lalius’ antitrinitarianism was an adoption of Servetian antitrinitarianism or only influenced by the Erroribus I have not researched. He nevertheless held antitrinitarian thinking and his papers came into the hands of his nephew who developed an antitrinitarianism which, as will be seen, was clearly not Servetian.

The Pre-Socinian Polish Reformed Church

Before considering the work of Faustus Socinus amongst the Polish Brethren, a quick overview of the growth of Polish antitrinitarianism would be useful. A Reformed Church patterned after Calvin’s church in Geneva had developed in Poland and according to Wilbur was reforming further than Calvin wanted it to go.5

One area that was “reforming to far” according to Calvin was the calling into question of orthodox Trinitarianism. In 1546 at the home of the Jan Trzycieski a question was posed concerning the nature of the Trinity. Considering this was several years before Servetus death, the outcry over his death could not have suggested this problem. The Erroribus had circulated there in Poland but again it is speculation to suggest it had prompted the question. Perhaps it occurred as was suggested by Wilbur that a legitimate inquiry smoldered in the minds of these reform-minded leading men of Poland.

In January 1556 the issue of the Trinity broke out into the open at the synod of Secemin6 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 antitrinitarianism7, which due to their smaller numbers became known as the Polish Minor Church.

The Polish Minor Church

Wilbur traced this complex history of the development of the antitrinitarians amongst the Polish Minor Church in Poland and it is beyond the scope of this paper to address it in all its details. However, the immediate issue which caused the schism was not exactly antitrinitarianism but concerned invoking the Holy Spirit in prayers or in hymns. Statorius, a French Protestant, raised the issue of the legitimacy of prayers to the Holy Spirit8 and at a Church synod was challenged and successfully silenced. However, the event had raised doubts in some of the other attendants at the synod.

Sometime after this Giorgio Biandrata arrived in Poland who attempted a reconciliation between the parties.9 A synod was again called, this time in December 1561 at Krakow to discuss the problems in the Reformed Church, and in particular the nature of the Godhead. The upshot of this synod was that ministers were told to refrain from using philosophical terms about the Trinity and that they should use the Apostles Creed as a confession.10 This was seen as a victory for the antitrinitarians and especially for Biandrata who had pushed for that position. But this decision proved the undoing of the Reformed Church in Poland. Efforts were underway to undermine the support of Biandrata’s position. To make matters worse, Alciati arrived and as he was a friend of Biandrata and a known heretic, his association with Biandrata provided fuel to the fire of divisiveness of the Calvinist Reformers.

The division between the two wings of the Reformed Church was all but certain when two rival synods had been established, one lead by Sarnicki, the reformed leader, and another lead by Paulus, the antitrinitarian leader. The breach was final when during a later conference in 1565 at Piotrkow11 the Calvinist Reformed wing broke off debate with the “Arian” Reformed wing, as the Major Church called them. It began bad and ended worse. A Calvinist wanted to invoke the Trinity in the opening prayer and that set the tone for the rest of the day. The debate on the Trinity ended inconclusively. The Calvinist labelled the antitrinitarians “Arians” although they were not Arian, the Calvinist walked out, and the resultant breach between these two wings of the Reformed Church never healed.

By 1565, thirteen years after Servetus’ death, the “Arians”, now called the Polish Minor Church12, had settled the issue of the Trinity for themselves, at least in general terms, and the Church now turned to other issues such as Baptism.13

Immergence of Socinianism

Sometime after 1565 Faustus Socinus arrived in Poland and gave the Minor Church its final distinctive understanding of the Godhead.14 He was instrumental in fully developing the Polish Brethren into what would become Socinianism. Although the Polish Minor Church has been called Socinian, it was only because the final form of its theology reflected the thinking of Faustus Socinius. Furthermore, if the Socinians can in any way be called Servetian, they were only through the influence of the Spaniard’s earlier immature work De Trinittis Erroribus, Libri septem.

Antitrinitarianism was not the only issue which the Polish Brethren discussed, debated and adopted. Anabaptism, the general term given by Protestants for the practice of adult baptism as opposed to infant baptism, had been an issue amongst the Polish Brethren for some time. By the time of Socinius, the Polish Brethren became overwhelmingly Anabaptist.15 Another issue debated amongst them was the adoration of Christ. If Christ was a man should he be worshipped? Should he be prayed to? The Church settled it in the affirmative after Faustus Socinus had entered the scene.

They also developed innovative social issues. How should a Christian live? Should they share Community of Goods like other Anabaptists16 in Southern Germany and Switzerland? What should be their role be in society? Should they participate in war? All these issues were debated in conferences and in synods. The one voice that was most persuasive on all these issues was Faustus Socinus, who though a non-theologian was nevertheless a well-versed Biblicist.

As has already been noted, Socinianism was the name given to the antitrinitarians of Poland, but it should be understood that this was not what they called themselves, which was The Polish Brethren. George Hunston Williams used the term Socinianism in the studies of the movement17 but it was not generally applied to them until the seventeenth century.18 The term Socinian derives from Faustus Socinius who, though never a member, helped initiate the movement and define its doctrine. Another designation was Unitarian referring to their position as the Father being the only God. Arianism19 has been wrongfully applied to the Brethren as they were not in any way Arian. In short, Socinianism and The Polish Brethren are practically interchangeable.

Faustus Socinus

Unlike Servetus, Faustus Socinus did not have a background in the Classics nor was he well-versed in Church writings. He never received a degree (it is questionable whether Servetus actually did as well) and spent most of his career in the world of business. He was in modern parlance, independently wealthy due to a family inheritance. He became closely associated with the Polish Brethren but because he could not accept their views on baptism Socinius was never fully embraced by them.

Nevertheless, in time he came to represent them in various synods. He lived in Kraków, Poland (not to be confused with Raków) and became a strong advocate for the beliefs of the Polish Brethren, engaging in various disputes and usually prevailing. Due to the loss of his inheritance, he had to publish using his real name. This led to him being expelled from Kraków and managed to secure a home for himself with friends elsewhere in Poland. By 1604 he had died, leaving a legacy which lives on in the modern name for the Polish Brethren.

Wilbur writes of Socinus,

He apologetically says of himself that he never studied philosophy nor applied himself to scholastic theology, and never dabbled even in Logic beyond the rudiments, and that very late in life. It was, however, this very deficiency in the conventional education of the time that contributed to his distinction as an original theologian, since when he came to work out a reformed system of doctrine he was not insensibly warped by traditional methods of thought, but approached the Bible text with an unbiased mind”.20

Discounting the possible bias of that assessment of Socinus, Faustus was nevertheless a Biblicist rather than the renaissance man that Servetus was. When he developed his Christian system, Faustus did not consult Jewish, Arab, or Ancient writings. The Bible, his uncle Leilo Sozzini’s writings, discussions with others, and his own reasoning faculty were his tools, and this shows in his writings.

This appeal to reason becomes increasingly important as a defining feature of the Socinians but is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss it in detail. His writings lack the philosophical speculation that characterized the later works of Servetus, such as The Restitution. Faustus’ argumentation closely resembles the simplicity of the Erroribus although the arguments are different and formulations of the Godhead are different. The best summary of his thought can be found in one of the most famous documents to emerge from the age of the Reformation - The Racovian Catechism.

The Racovian Catechism

The Racovian Catechism21 is a document of more than 400 pages written in Latin by the Polish Brethren in Raków in southern Poland. Raków was a village which was founded by the Polish Brethren. This document, which amounts to a confession of faith, was not Servetian. It was, however, derived from the writings of Servetus in the sense that it was the Spaniard who through his writings and his fame as a victim of Calvin indignation initiated widespread questioning of orthodox formulations of the Trinity.

In the Catechism, Socinian teachings on the nature of the Godhead is, in contrast to Servetus, clearly and unambiguously monotheistic. God has existed from eternity22 and has expressed himself to humanity through his Holy Spirit, which in Socinian thought is God’s power.23 The Son of God, Jesus Christ, is a man, through and through24, without any celestial flesh and without a divine nature.25 He did not pre-exist in any form except in God’s foreknowledge.26 He is a child of Mary begotten by a miracle performed by the Holy Spirit.27 At some point in his career he was taken up into heaven to be informed of his mission, and to be sent back to perform his appointed work.28 He died, rose from the dead and was taken up into heaven as a mediator between God and humanity.29 This, in brief, was Faustus’ formulation of the Godhead. It is clearly Unitarian and equally not Servetian.

In the Minor Church of Poland, the formulation of the Godhead went through various interpretations before Socinus settled it in this form. Beginning with the questions of the guest of Jan Trzycieski, to Peter Giezek, shaped by Gribaldi, by Biandrata, by Alciati, by Gentile, and hence indirectly by Servetus, as well as by Stancaro and finally by Socinus, the Socinians settled on this particular antitrinitarian formulation, a unique doctrine known since as Socinianism.

Socinian and Servetian Antitrinitarianism

Both the Socinians and Servetus were antitrinitarian in the sense that they both rejected the Athanasian formulation of the Trinity as set out in the Nicaean Creed. But Servetian antitrinitarianism was not the same as Socinian antitrinitarianism. The fundamental difference was that Servetus’ Jesus was a mode of God, whereas Faustus Socinus’ Jesus was a miraculously created man who by God’s power and strength remained sinless. Michael Servetus was, nevertheless, a founder of the antitrinitarian movement in the 16th Century, but not the founder. Likewise Faustus Socinus was not the founder of the Polish antitrinitarians, he remains the single biggest influence on the growth and development of the Polish Brethren and, therefore, Socinianism worldwide. His religious system, like those of Biandrata’s, Gribaldi’s, and Gentile’s entered the intellectual pot in Europe and added its part to the development of the unique Unitarianism of the Socinians. The Polish Brethren, as the Socinians called themselves, were Servetian only in the sense that they have him to thank for raising the issue of the Trinity in the collective consciousness of Europe. Socinianism spread throughout Europe by the flight of the Polish Brethren.

The branch of Dutch Socinians found a ready ear in seventeenth century England convincing even the great mathematician Sir Isaac Newton.30 But that is a different story. Today Socinianism lives on in various modes worldwide under the general name of Unitarianism. A list of dedicated or nominal adherents range from the poet E.E. Cummings, Charles Dickens, John Quincy Adams, Tim Berners-Lee and many more.

For an event occurring in 16th century Geneva, the effect of the execution of Michael Servetus at the hands of both Catholics (in effigy) and Protestants in reality can be felt to this day. Western legal codes enshrine the freedom of religion and thought and the execution of anyone for their beliefs is considered barbaric. Religious tolerance in 16th century Poland led to Servetian and later Socinian thought taking route and establishing a form of Christianity that is an integral part of the fabric of Western society. Little did Servetus and Socinus know how they were shaping the future in ways they could never have imagined. The fact that I can freely write about them today is one small part of their legacy.

Continue to next section


  1. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 225. 

  2. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 244-5. 

  3. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 241. 

  4. See note Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 244. 

  5. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 283. 

  6. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 285, 287. 

  7. Or as Wilbur called them “Arians”. I cannot see how the antitrinitarians in Poland were Arian. The use of Arian seems to be used as a catch-all phrase. Socinus was strictly not Arian but Unitarian. Wilbur’s use of the term is inexplicable. 

  8. His view was that “the Holy Spirit is not a third person in the Deity, nor God, but a power and gift of God which he awakens in the hearts of the faithful, dividing to each one severally even as he will.” Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 296. 

  9. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 302. 

  10. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 310. 

  11. There is a political side to this history. The King of Poland wanted unity amongst his subjects because he was preparing for war against Russia and other enemies. He hoped the conference would settle the issues. It was important for him because many noblemen and leaders of the country were entangled in the debate. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 322. 

  12. The majority joined the larger Church, although the intellectual leadership went mostly to the Minor Church. 

  13. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 328. 

  14. Antitrinitarianism in some form was circulating in the Polish Reformed Church before Servetian antitrinitarianism arrived. Wilbur makes the case for this and his arguments were mentioned earlier in this essay. 

  15. In the sense of baptism by immersion by consenting adults. 

  16. The Anabaptists were condemned by both Protestants and Catholics. Servetus has never been labelled an Anabaptist although he was condemned for his pedobaptism as well as his antitrinitarianism. 

  17. Williams, G.H. The Polish Brethren: Documentation of the History and Thought of Unitarianism. (Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press, 1980). See also his Radical Reformation. (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1962). 

  18. Kot, S. Socinianism in Poland: The Social and Political Ideas of the Polish Antitrinitarianism in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Trans. by Wilbur. (Boston: Starr King Press, 1957) Pg. xix. 

  19. The opponents of the Brethren used the term Arian to make them appear more heretical. See Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 321, and Kot, Socinianism, Pg. xix. Polish Communists have used this term to refer to the Brethren; this is interesting considering Communist Historians were not concerned with the Socinian doctrine as much as their radical social and economic life. 

  20. Wilbur, Unitarianism, Pg. 389. 

  21. Crellius, John, and others, Catechism of the Churches of Poland, which confess according to the Scriptures, one God, the Father, his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. First published 1609 in Rakow, Poland. Translated by Thomas Rees F.S.A. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, Paternoster Row, 1818. Reprint: (Lexington, Kentucky: American Theological Library Association, 1962) 

  22. Crellius, Catechism, Pg. 26. 

  23. Crellius, Catechism, Pg. 39. 

  24. Crellius, Catechism, Pp. 51-3. 

  25. Crellius, Catechism, Pg. 134. 

  26. Crellius, Catechism, Pg. 149. 

  27. Crellius, Catechism, Pp. 52-3. 

  28. Crellius, Catechism, Pg. 149. 

  29. Crellius, Catechism, Pg. 349-50. 

  30. Snobelen, S. Isaac Newton, Socinianism and “the One Supreme God”