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Their Souls Would Not Be Satisfied

By the Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons; used with permission.

Narrator: We have a very important guest with us today. She has come all the way from Transylvania of the mid-sixteenth century to tell us of a new innovation in her day known as Unitarianism. Please make her welcome, Princess Isabella of Poland.

(As the narrator speaks, Queen Isabella places a crown on her head.)

Queen Isabella: (Place the crown on your head. Present this part with an imposing, regal bearing.)

You are surprised to see me assume this crown, are you not? "Princess," they call me still; "Princess Isabella of Poland," as if I had never left the court of my father, as if I had never gone to Transylvania, as if I had never been a queen. But a queen I was; the queen of a dream, the queen of an idea of the heart and soul that has transformed the world, and might transform it still.

How often do they come together, the dream and the crown? How often is the vision of a new way of being human together in the world granted unto those with the power to make it, even briefly, the foundation of law and custom? This crown was the power to make the dream real; a dream that could perhaps only have been born in that land in that time, but a dream that in four hundred years and more, has never died. You are its heirs and its carriers today; you are the people we dreamed of, my son and I.

The other story you know, for the bards and minstrels have told and retold it, and its pictures have been graven in your hearts, while ours was forgotten, and I think I know why. It is because Arthur was a man. It is because the vision of Camelot, with its democracy and chivalry and deeply held honor and peace, was a man's vision. That we can tolerate and remember. When the crown and the dream are a woman's crown, and a woman's dream, that is more difficult. To the extent that it has been remembered at all, it is remembered as my son's dream. King John Sigismund, you say, promulgated the first edict of religious toleration in the modern western world. King John Sigismund of Transylvania, they write, the only Unitarian King in history.

You must understand the world in which we lived, my son John and I. The Protestant reformations that had swept over Europe during our lives, and the counter-surges of Catholic orthodoxy, were powerful tides of religious, political and even military struggle. It was an assumption beyond question that a nation's ruler had the right, and indeed the obligation, to impose upon the people his or her own understanding of correct religious doctrine. Any who disagreed, and dared to say so, were killed —burned at the stake, or thrown into prison to die of neglect — or banished to another country. Years after my own death, in the late part of my son John Sigismund's reign, when he issued his last and most inclusive charter, guaranteeing full religious liberty, Protestant theologians were still praising Calvin for having burned Servetus alive, and more than forty years were still to pass before persons ceased to be burned at the stake in England for holding wrong religious opinions.

And in this world of tides and struggle my infant son, John Sigismund, and I were betrayed by one of the very men my husband and king, John Zapolya, had chosen on his deathbed to safeguard our throne. George Martinuzzi, Bishop of Nagyvarad, connived to send us into exile and return Transylvania to Catholic control.

For myself alone, I could have wept and raged and cursed God. But always there was John Sigismund to think of. It was then that we began the Game. To keep from going mad, to keep from poisoning ourselves with bitterness of revenge rehearsed over and over, we sent our fantasies in the other direction. When we return, when the crown is restored to us, when the land is ours again, what kind of rulers shall we be? What would be the best way, the very best possible way, to rule a kingdom such as ours? We could play this for hours, arguing out the fine points of statecraft, of jurisprudence, of military and political strategy, but always with two questions, equally to be lifted up. Will it work? and Is it good? It was a game that we would play for five long years of exile, while John grew from a slender lad of eleven to the passionate convictions of sixteen. And it was in the context of this game that the Dream itself was born. For one of the questions that the ruler must face, of course, is what to do about religion.

We talked for hours about the possibilities available. I had been raised in the traditional Catholic faith of the Polish court, and that was the belief of John Zapolya. Yet in the years of war and confusion, the Reformation had swept the country. Few of the great families or prominent nobles now remained Catholic, and to restore Catholicism would have entailed a bitter, costly and painful struggle. And besides, after the way in which Martinuzzi, a man of the Church, had behaved toward us, and the way in which the Church had rewarded him for his perfidy, John Sigismund and I had little love for the Roman church. We were also much influenced by my mother's doctor, always my good friend and supporter, Giorgio Biandrata, with his ideas that the reformers had not gone far enough, that the whole doctrine of the Trinity was an error invented by the Church. They called him then what they call you today: Unitarian. And there was the reality than most of the powerful nobles of the land we would be seeking to rule were either Lutherans, or else the new form of Protestant, followers of John Calvin. Add to all this the knowledge that it was the infidel Mohammedan Suleiman, our staunchest protector and friend, who forced Ferdinand to give us back our country and crown as part of a comprehensive peace treaty in 1555.

It came slowly, a dream born of a game born of desperation. Why should we have to choose for everyone? What did we know about God more than all those other believers? Suppose a nation had many churches, different from one another, and the people could choose freely among them such worship as would satisfy their souls? Suppose there were books to read, freely and openly; public debates, even, where the ablest of each tradition could argue their true convictions as forcefully as possible, and convince whomever they might? It was so daring, so different from anything we knew, that we laughed at first. But gradually the dream took hold of us, as dreams do, and we understood that this would be a part of our plan, whenever we should return to power.

It took us months to plan, but our return to our people was a triumph of joy. And at the first parliament I issued the decree that "every one might hold the faith of his choice... without offence to any..." It was the first time since the political hegemony of Christendom had spread across the western world centuries before, that a national leader gave back to ordinary people the authority of their own consciences in matters of God and the soul. Two and half years later, shortly after John had turned nineteen, I died; and the fate of our dream was left in his hands. And in his hands the dream grew, and he nourished it, and expanded it, and proved that it could work. But it was I who taught him to dream, I who nurtured him in wisdom and the courage that goes beyond the field of battle to make the mind itself daring; it was I who first gave form to the dream we shared; a woman's dream.

I tell you, lay aside the legends of Camelot! Wake to the light of this dream, the light of which you are the keepers and the nearest heirs. Be not complacent. But see how the seed we planted has taken root in the heart of the human spirit, and everywhere that it is crushed, it springs up anew, flowering ever more boldly. Your nation was founded in it! I cannot pass you my crown; its time is gone. But the dream lives on. May you prove to be its worthy stewards!

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Last updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.

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