International Unitarian Universalism: Torda 450: Celebrating the Anniversary of Religious Tolerance

History, Context, and Further Reading

Torda450:History, Context, and Further Reading

Four and a half centuries is a long time for Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists. Its not uncommon to view the 1980s as ‘the distant past' in our tradition, and anything that happened before the Unitarian and Universalist consolidation in 1961 as ‘ancient history.’ Our 19th century American forbears are often considered interesting or quaint. We reference their best qualities when the authority of an ancestor is helpful, or we take inspiration from courage they displayed. But almost always it feels very far from current experience.

And yet, this year we invite you to reach back further in history and across and ocean to a different continent: to 1568 in Eastern Europe. The sixteenth century was a laboratory for religious reformation in Europe. It succeeded in centering Lutheran, Anglican and Reformed variations of Christianity in many countries and municipalities. But our Unitarian & Universalist traditions find closer affinity to Radical Reformers who were unsatisfied with these reforms and pressed for further adaptation.

In Transylvania, they found traction. The reigning monarch, Zsigmond Janos (John Sigismund) took interest in religious reform, and supported a series of theological debates during the 1560s.  Close at hand was his court physician, Giorgio Biandrata (George Biandrata) who was also a supporter of radical religious reform and familiar with the anti-trinitarian writings of Servetus and Italian theologians earlier in the century. With Biandrata's influence, the King welcomed another radical reformer, Dávid Ferenc (Francis David), to be his court preacher.

After a decade of theological debate and the Unitarian influence of Dávid and Biandrata, King John Sigismund’s Diet of Torda concluded its theological explorations on January 13, 1568, issuing a Statement of Religious Tolerance which ends with this now famous paragraph:

“In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his (sic) 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…no one shall be reviled for his (sic) religion by anyone… and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment... For faith is the gift of God..."

There is so much that the Edict points to which our religious tradition continues to rely upon: the grounding commitment that faith is not endowed with purpose or accountable to a government or an empire, but to the Sacred, the Holy; that a free pulpit and a free pew are necessities for free religious communities; even the stirrings of our commitment to resist authoritarianism as a religious practice is signaled in the Edict.

An anniversary is a special opportunity to look back and remember foundations and commitments which can be touchstones for the struggle ahead. The Edict of Torda is one of those reliable sources of power and inspiration. But, there is no need to romanticize history - its clear to 21st century UUs that the Edict of Torda did not go far enough. It was a step, an important step, on a pathway of reform and towards greater freedom that continues today. But, it was radical in its time - David was martyred for his steadfast commitment to the work of never-ending reformation - and an inspiration rather than a destination in our own time.

Beyond these matters of faith and practice, the upcoming anniversary calls American UUs to know ourselves better by celebrating the history of the world’s first Unitarian churches. Our international partners in Transylvania, Hungary, and around the world understand the Edict as their moment of establishment, and a basic part of their spiritual DNA. Let us take this anniversary as a chance to understand our history more completely, to celebrate the radical reform spirit that is at the basis of the Edict, and may we translate it into lives and ministries of purpose today:

There are many writings and resources to turn to for history and context. Here are a few that may be helpful when planning Torda450 events: