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Transylvania – the birthplace of modern religious tolerance

2 months ago

Have you heard about a place called Torda? Probably not. It’s a smallish town smack in the middle of the Carpathian Basin in Transylvania, Romania, with a history of human settlement there going back some 60,000 years to the Middle Paleolithic period. Still nothing? What if I were to tell you that this is the place where modern religious tolerance was born? Here is the story:

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century influenced many people in Poland and Transylvania to confess a new religion: Unitarianism. This new religion was officially recognized for the first time in history in 1568, in the Act of Religious Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience or Edict of Torda.

In Medieval Europe, religious differences were a dangerous thing indeed, mainly because most people subscribed to the view that there is only one Truth. Thus heresy was considered worse than murder. If someone murdered you – all else being equal – you could still go to heaven. But if someone branded you a heretic, he would be damning your soul for all of eternity. That’s much worse than simply killing your body. And heresy was also and act of treason against earthly power. The king was chosen by God. Would you questioning the king’s religion?

In 1568, in the city of Torda (Romanian: Turda, German: Thorenburg, Transylvanian Saxon: Torembrich, Latin: Potaissa), the world’s only Unitarian king, János Zsigmond (John Sigismund), put forward during the Diet – i.e. Parliament – the Act of Religious Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience (a.k.a. the Edict of Torda). The Edict said the following:

“Our Royal Majesty, as he had decided at the previous debates within his country about matters of religion, confirms as well at the present Diet that every preacher shall preach the gospel by his own (personal) conviction, at any place if that community is willing to accept him, or if it isn’t, no one should force him just because their soul is not satisfied with him; but a community can keep such a preacher whose teachings are delightful. And no one, neither superintendents nor others, may hurt a preacher by this or by the previous constitutions; no one may be blamed because of their religion. No one is allowed to threaten others with prison or divest anyone of their office because of their profession: because faith is God’s gift born from hearing and this hearing is conceived by the word of God.”

Obviously, the Unitarian King had a vested interest to convince the Diet by any means necessary. The very clever and honorable members of the Diet, as a well-oiled democratic body, according to the principle of “induced spontaneity,” approved the King’s humble proposal: to recognize the King’s own religion as equal to all the others.

Aside from this unusual interpretation, this was a unique decision in the Europe of that time on promoting religious tolerance. Incidentally, it also meant the official recognition of Unitarianism and the foundation of the Unitarian Church.

The inspirational leadership of Transylvanian Unitarianism was provided by one Ferenc Dávid (Francis David), who famously said, “We need not think alike to love alike.”

Dávid Ferenc
Dávid Ferenc

According to local lore, Dávid Ferenc was born in about 1520 in Kolozsvár (Romanian: Cluj – Napoca, German: Klausenburg, Latin: Napoca). Not surprisingly for a Transylvanian, his father, David Hertel was of Saxon nationality, or for those unfamiliar with this designation: a German. His mother was Hungarian. After his father’s first name, David, he named himself Franciscus Davidis (or son of David). Later he transformed David into Dávid as his last or family name. Hungarians are famously touchy about the dots and dashes in their names. His sons, Dávid and János, however, returned to the name Hertel in its Latin form, Hertelius.

Dávid Ferenc was educated at the universities of Frankfurt an der Oder (not to be confounded with the larger and more famous Frankfurt-am-Main) and Wittenberg. In Wittenberg, he became a supporter of the Reformation. He considered religious reformation as an eternal principle and its particular directions as evolutionary stages. He rejected the Dogma of the Holy Trinity as a human creation. He started preaching the concept of one God based on Jesus’ teachings. And the principle of God’s unity became the central idea of his reformation.

Between 1560 and 1660, Poland also had a couple of hundred Unitarian churches. They were officially called the Minor Reformed Church or Socinians of Poland. In 1660 all Polish Unitarians were given three choices: convert to Catholicism, go into exile, or be executed. Comparing their fate with that of Transylvanian Unitarians, it is safe to say that modern religious freedom was born in Transylvania.