In a religion which prides itself in being non-creedal so that it may change as new truths are revealed, looking back beyond the 1961 merger of the Unitarians and Universalists is not only history, it is ancient history. And to be looking back 450 years is really ancient, ancient history. But on January 13th we will be celebrating the 1568 Statement of Religious Tolerance.
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, John Sigismund took interest in religious reform, and supported a series of theological debates during the 1560s. Close at hand was his court physician, 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, Francis David, to be his court preacher.
After a decade of theological debate and the Unitarian influence of David 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 – it’s clear to 21st century UU’s 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.
Here in the 21st century we are still trying to balance the rights of the individual and the desire by some to impose their religious beliefs on others. Our Supreme Court will shortly be deciding if a business may discriminate against others because the owner feels that service to certain people will go against strongly held religious beliefs. A baker of wedding cakes says that he may refuse to provide a cake for a couple with whom he disagrees. Not so many years ago the discrimination was expressed against blacks where some used Biblical statements to endorse their bigoted beliefs. Now discrimination based on race is less overt and instead it is expressed openly usually against gays, lesbians and the transgendered. We UU’s attempt to follow our first statement of belief as belief in the worth and dignity of every individual and in that way practice tolerance. And, that proclamation is the beginning of our legacy to be a spiritual tradition that resists hatred, oppression, and the narrow view that there is only one way to be faithful, to be religious, to be free.
Don Thompson is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Alamosa.