The Only Unitarian King Who Ever Lived

April 1, 2001

Faith is a gift of God and cannot be coerced.
-Words attributed to Dr. Francis David, 1568

It was May of the year 1968. Over a thousand Unitarian Universalists were gathered on the Boston Common to hear denominational officials speak of our long-standing ties with the Transylvanian Unitarians. We were there as part of a week-long celebration of the 400th Anniversary of Unitarianism. Overhead came a display plane pulling a long message. It said, “Happy Birthday Unitarian Universalists!”. I surely did like standing there watching that banner for it had been my idea. Later that evening we gathered in Fanieul Hall for speeches, folk dance displays and the music of Bela Bartok. It was quite a week and it was perhaps the first time I began to realize the importance of our ties to those warm and wonderful people in that Eastern European country so far away and yet so close. Over the years, through wars, famine, tyranny and sorrow they have indeed “kept the faith”.

Our country, of course, was founded on the principles of religious freedom, the use of reason and the affirmation of all faiths. They were the building blocks of our Republic. They were a great inheritance brought from the roots of our Judeo-Christian Protestant beginnings in middle Europe. So this morning I would like to share a story with you; a story so full of human courage and inspiration that it still swells the human heart.

During the dark and bloody days of the reign of Emperor Charles the Fifth a vicious tooth-and-claw “free-for-all” raged between the Holy Roman Empire and the Sultan of Turkey. The prize was control of central and eastern Europe. And during those years a true-live drama took place the likes of which the world had not witnessed up to that time. Scholars still regard it as a miracle of history, though true. It was played out in a country whose name meant “the land beyond the forest”, namely Transylvania.

The chief figures were the Reverend Francis David’ and King John Sigismund. David was a preacher, scholar and orator of enormous talents reminiscent of Daniel Webster. The other was a young man of 28 who had been born in the city of Buda in 1540. His mother was Princess Isabella of Poland. His father, King John Zapolya was away at his birth trying to subdue a local rebellion and died of fever two weeks after the boy’s birth. Prince John grew up, living with his mother. She had a strong influence on his life.

From the moment he came of age in 1561 he was in constant struggle for control of Transylvania with Ferdinand, the Archduke of Austria and King of Bohemia. (Ferdinand was also a brother of Charles the Fifth.) Ferdinand warred against the Sultan of Turkey whose troops had burned, raped and pillaged to the very gates of Vienna.

In addition to the wars concerning the Hapsburgs and the Turks, the young king had to face the wars among the religious fanatics. When people disagreed in those days they didn’t just debate. Disagree and you often wound up dead. And...and...there were nine attempts to assassinate King John during his ten year rule.

There are two other figures ancillary to David and John. One was Giorgio Biandrata. He was an internationally famous physician and acknowledged specialist in the diseases of women. As a man of science he voiced impatience with the irrelevance of religious debates. As Court Physician to John, then, he pressed his views personally and gave strong moral support to John’s efforts to achieve peace and harmony in his country. In the last analysis, however, the doctor did desert the field in frustration. He was unwilling to risk life and limb regarding the petty theological details.

The other person I must mention would be Princess Isabella herself. Her cheerful marriage ended in tragedy but she did her best to preserve the throne for her son. She had a basic belief that if people could be free to believe as they wished and without compulsion, a great impediment to the harmony of humanity could be removed.

The dramatic event that I want to relate occurs in two acts. The first is set in the Great Hall in the City of Torda in January of 1568. King John has called an assembly together with representatives of the four major religions. The word used for this assembly was the word “Diet”. The King directed that spokesmen for each religion would present their case and defend them before him, notwithstanding the mutually hostile atmosphere that had grown up around them. The four religions were the Roman Catholics, the Lutherans, the Calvinists and the Unitarians. What they held against each other might strike us here in the 21st century as nit-picking, hair-splitting matters of theological doctrine. But the losers in such contests often ended up being imprisoned, tortured or even executed.

The questions dealt with God’s intentions for humanity. “If God wills that the Lord’s Supper should be a re-enactment of Jesus’ sacrifice, does the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of the Savior? (Or) “How savage a sin is it to hold that the Lord’s Supper is MERELY a symbol?” Heretics were thought to be tools of Satan. It was believed by the orthodox that such enemies of God should die as painfully as possible.

King John had absorbed much of the thinking of Biandrata and he found David’s words to his liking, too. Why should the people NOT be able to discuss honest differences without making war on one another? David’s concept of One God did not bother him. It made more sense than “one God in Three” that the orthodox talked about. In any event, the young king was committed to the belief that sober argument is the best way to bring out the truth.

Imagine the scene. 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 the judges chosen. The speakers would alternate on each side. And the debate, once it began, lasted ten days, beginning each morning at 5 a.m!

Now I know that Unitarian Universalists have been known to talk about matters of religion for long periods of time; but one wonders how big a crowd could be collected today to listen to a debate that began each day before the rooster crowed. But the historical record is clear. It came to be known as the greatest debate in the history of Unitarianism.

Finally, Sigismund renewed a declaration of religious toleration authored in 1557. Listen to a portion of those momentous words:

“...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. Therefore none of the Superintendents (Bishops) or others shall annoy or abuse the preachers on account of their religion, according to the previous constitutions, or allow any to be imprisoned or punished by removal from his post on account of his teachings, for faith is the gift of God. This comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”

Considering the time in which they were uttered, a time of religious persecution religious hatred, political and religious fear; these words must have stirred their hearers as no others. Here was this liberal Monarch siding with the arguments of Francis David but going a step further in proclaiming that ALL should be willing to let differences abide without fear, acrimony or punishment.

King John Sigismund had come by his religious liberalism quite naturally with the tutelage of his mother and reinforced by the influences of those close to him. Against him were leveled hatred, abuse, plots of assassination, political intrigue. But he held fast and maintained that religious liberty and tolerance while he lived. In fact, even after his death on March 14, 1571 the surge of freedom continued despite the natural reaction created by those who would return to the old days.

Two months after the debate in Torda, Francis David returned to his home city of Koloszvar. In that city on a street corner is a large boulder embedded in the ground. And a good-sized crowd had gathered there to welcome a hero. The news of David’s victory and of the King’s acceptance of Unitarianism had preceded him. It must have been much as the world felt when such heroes as Amelia Earhart or Charles Lindbergh returned in triumph; of when Babe Ruth emerged from the dugout; of the time when the first Astronauts returned from space. But this was about religion.

There was most likely no person in that welcoming throng who had not heard or even witnessed some event of religious torture or execution in the name of religion. But the hero they were there to hail had served a different purpose.

The procession comes into view. The people cheer and shout. And Francis David steps up on that boulder and gives the crowd the story of the debate explaining that the King had decided to join them. David is carried on their shoulders to the church in the square and legend has it that “the whole city accepted the Unitarian faith then and there.” Obviously, the boulder as symbol is deeply appealing to us since, not 50 years later some folks down in Plymouth stepped to a rock of the same size there. As they did they stepped into a land that they hoped would promise them religious freedom.

There is an epilogue as there often is to any story.

The followers of David knew how fiercely they were hated. They were fearful of what might happen in the event that the King should die. They asked for his protection and the King willingly granted formal recognition. Soon after, however, in an accidental carriage crash the heroic King died of complications from his injuries.

He was succeeded by Istvan Batory and his brother, Kristof - both Roman Catholics. Francis David was dismissed, of course, as Court Preacher. Unitarian meetings outside of Torda and Koloszvar were prohibited. But that did not silence David. He began preaching his doctrine of Unitarian around the land. His old friend, Biandrata counseled him to cease. But he would not. He denied the Deity of Jesus. He scoffed at the concept of Predestination. He was convinced that the truth as he had found it should be spoken.

During this time he developed a serious illness. He had to be lifted from one place to another. And it was in this condition that he was finally summoned to a trial where he readily admitted his beliefs.

His judges were political realists. They knew how popular this man was with the people. So they knew they couldn’t simply condemn him to death as a heretic. What they did was condemn him to lifetime imprisonment. He was locked in a dark, damp cell in the ancient castle at Deva. This was in June. He died in November. His burial place remains a mystery to this day.

Those of you who have been privileged to visit that beautiful land where so many of our Unitarian brothers and sisters continue to practice their faith in “the one True God”, know how warm and sincere they are. Though they have lived, some of them, through two world wars and the cruel tyranny of a dictator, we hold them in our hearts. They are our spiritual family with whom we trace our heritage of religious freedom back over four hundred years. Central to their story is the inspiring record of King John Sigismund, the only Unitarian king who ever lived.

My final words are in the form of a pleasant surprise for you all. Just six weeks from today it will be First Parish’s honor and privilege to welcome to its historic pulpit the Bishop of the Transylvanian Unitarian churches. The Rev. Arpad Szabo hosted a dinner in Koloszver for those of us from the Clearwater, Florida church who visited our partner church back in 1998. He will preach the sermon here on Sunday, May 13th and I couldn’t be more happy that he will be among us here in Norwell. I hope our whole church will be here to welcome him and let him know how much he and his stalwart Unitarian friends have come to mean to us.

So be it and Amen.