Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Today on the show, we tell the story of the father of Transylvanian Unitarianism.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***


It is the 15th of November, 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


It was on this day in 1579 that Ferenc David, also called Francis David, died- he was a complicated man- Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed and then became the father of Transylvanian Unitarianism. Let’s start by unpacking the place you might most associate with Dracula.


Transylvania was a historic region in Eastern Europe that is today in Romania. It was in the valley created southwest of the Carpathian Mountains and north of the Transylvanian Alps (etymologically, the place is named for the place beyond “or trans” the “Sylvania” or “woods”). It had been part of the Roman Empire since 270 and was then conquered by the Magyars at the end of the 9th century. However, with the coming Mongol invasions starting in the 13th century, it would be cut off from the Holy Roman Empire and Western Europe, creating an autonomous region with Magyars and immigrants from Saxony.


In case you were wondering, there were some locals who were named to the Western European order of the Dragon- they would take the name for that “Dracul”- and a son of Darcul would be “Dracula.” Vlad III was one such son of a Dracul.


So Transylvania would always be separate both geographically from the West and from the Western church- this will be a key to understanding how Unitarianism would find fertile soil here.


Our story begins in either 1510 or 1520- the story of Ferenc David begins with some mystery. He was born to a Magyar, or Hungarian mother, and a Saxon shoemaker in Kolozvar- modern-day Cluj. He was training for the priesthood and was notable enough in his studies to warrant the attention of local patrons who sent him to Western Europe to study in 1546. He went to the universities at Frankfurt and Wittenberg, where he became familiar with the doctrines of the Protestant Reformers. He returned home in 1551 and by 1552 was acting as a local minister introducing the Reformation, by 1555, he was elected chief minister and in 1557 was named the Bishop by the now Lutheran Hungarians living in Transylvania.



Disappointed with the inability to unite various Reformation-minded Christians, he left the Lutheran church in 1559 and began associating himself with the teachings of Zwingli and Calvin. But, seeing their inability to find agreement amongst themselves, he began searching for an understanding of Christianity that might bring union.


It’s worth taking a second here and noting that for us, we are quite familiar with the divisions that began 500 years ago. Still, we might look at characters living in that age with some added sympathy for the split of the church seemed like an apocalyptic disaster. Ferenc would decide to keep those doctrines that he saw as coming out of the Bible and were compatible with reason. The unity of God seemed central to him, and without the early creeds defining the two natures of Jesus, he came to an understanding we now call “Unitarianism.” This theological development (with parallel developments in Italy and Poland) took place as the Transylvanians themselves began to argue for theological toleration.



The 1568 Diet of Torda would proclaim Unitarianism legal and freedom of conscience unseen in Europe at the time. The king would adopt Unitarianism, and Transylvania would become a haven for liberal theologians and other unitarians.


But with the death of the king in 1571 (that would be the Hohenzollern John II of Brandenburg), the Catholic house of Bathory would come to power. The new king, Stephan, would permit religious toleration- at least to a certain extent.


David would begin innovating beyond the then-standard teaching of the Unitarians. It’s worth noting that they held Jesus in high esteem, just noting that he was a click down from God the father (it was similar to the old heresy of Arianism which was behind the calling of the early councils and debate on the two natures of Christ). David believed that Jesus should not be invoked or adored the same way God the father was. A local minister called on Faustus Socinus- an Italian unitarian living in Poland, to help Ferenc see the error of his ways. They were unable to convince him, and King Stephan ordered that he be arrested on account of his views too closely resembling Judaism- a creed not protected by the Diet of Torda. This was 1579. David would be sentenced to life in prison but die within months, on this the 15th of November in 1579.


The Last Word for today comes from the lectionary for today from 1 Corinthians:


27 If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. 29 I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? 30 If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— 33 even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 15th of November 2022, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.


The show is produced by a man whose favorite Transylvanian export is Count Chocula- he is Christopher Gillespie.


The show is written and read by a man who has not only enjoyed Count Chocula but also E.T. the Cereal, the Nintendo Entertainment System Cereal, Gremlins cereal, and Urkel-O’s. I’m Dan van Voorhis.


You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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